This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
NUM8ERS RACHEL WARD
FOR OZZY, ALI, AND PETER
Contents Cover Title Page CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE CHAPTER THIRTY CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO .
CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE FIVE YEARS LATER ACKNOWLEDGMENTS About the Author Special Sneak Preview PRAISE FOR NUM8ERS Copyright .
She crouched down and held both sides of the frame with her hands. the bruises and pinpricks more vivid than ever. I don’t care if you don’t believe me — suit yourself. “Listen. The teachers. Do you think they’re disappointed when we don’t turn up for registration? Give me a break. I don’t need it today. There was nothing on this earth that could have stopped her. in back lanes. I could have told her. she’d talk to me. ’round garages. The light went on the day my mum went. silly cow. put the kettle on. four. Poor sod — he doesn’t stand a chance. If they do see us. helped myself to some cereal. even read to me sometimes. her venom fizzing all around me. in sheds. I like to be on my own. on the way to the Department of Social Security to pick up her weekly money. We were making our way rapidly along the High Street. I kept going over and over it in my mind. just my luck. OK? I don’t need it. I watched a man in a scruffy suit write it down on a piece of paper: Date of Death: 10. where I don’t have to see their numbers. mouthy one they call Spider. and rang for an ambulance. does he. There was no one there. Then all these people came: people in uniform — police. 12152010. I feel them. and she would be happy for a few hours. One of those people who stand too close to you. When she’d finished. And I know what they mean. their number. I could remember it. but. I don’t know. she would be able to buy that stuff from the boarded-up house down our street. I thought she’d be pleased. the fury clear on her face. And all the time. Her eyes were open. four. If only I’d known that was what it was. Four years later. He carried on for me. disrupting their lessons. like I hadn’t already seen it. bad kids. whiling away the hours. girl?” I shrugged. people in suits — like that man with the clipboard and paper. Don’t believe all that crap about giving everyone a chance — when they see us. My view of him was blocked by the edge of my hood. I like to find the places where nobody is — where I don’t have to look at anyone. Suppose that’s why he gets into fights at school. like something hanging in the air. there it would be. nothing. on vacant lots. her number was there. I thought everyone did. Well. and ate my Coco Pops while it boiled. he’s still there — doesn’t read the signs at all. . and a lady. one. Date of Death. even though I knew she wouldn’t reply. “I don’t know what you’re going on about. bored kids. Even if you twist and turn away. and then she rushed out past me and was sick in the hallway. just like that. should he?” He’s big. His number. came right up to me and wagged a finger in my face.” Syllables stinging like angry wasps. Would it have made a difference? If she’d known that we only had six years together? Would it? Hell — she would still have been a junkie.” The words came spitting out of her face. That’s why I was pissed off when I got to my favorite haunt down by the canal and found someone had got there before me.10. down her front and on the covers. she wiped her mouth on her hankie. If it had just been a stranger. I used to tell my mum people’s numbers as she pushed me along in my buggy. like normal. very soon. but I couldn’t see it anymore when I looked into her dull. and lonely kids. That was the other reason why he made me feel uncomfortable. sick. tall. one. too. making their lives a misery. some old dosser or junkie. She came up to look. for as long as I could remember. never takes the hint. making a cage with her body. It’s doing my head in. I’d found her in the morning. nothing. if you know where to look. so just…bloody…shut…up. I don’t exactly “see” them.CHAPTER ONE There are places where kids like me go. gangly. twos or threes. No milk. “Naughty. right. as we sat there eye-to-eye. There are thousands of us. words. He’s in your face all the time. it was one of the other kids from Mr. She was still in bed. But they’re real. you’ll find us: behind the shops. pretend we’re not there. stamped on the inside of my skull: 10102001. clutching so tightly I could see the cords in her arms standing out. Jem — he’s a psycho. stopped her. two. the only place I’d ever known. seven. I put the coffee down on the floor. Not numbers this time. I’d always seen the numbers. put my school things on. Soon. but as he loomed up to me and I moved my head instinctively away from him. they kind of appear in my head. Jem. I left the carton on the side. that is — most people don’t. somewhere behind my eyes. Made me wait outside the flat. six!” Suddenly. “Nothing. and we don’t want to be there. if my eyes met someone else’s. kids that are different. I stood there for a few minutes. She looked me straight in the eye. nine!” “Nothing. under bridges by canals and rivers. two.2001. Then I made Mum a black coffee and carried it carefully into her room. If you choose to find us. “Mum?” I said. nothing. next to the needle. And her number was gone. She was gone. Me. I know they’re real. It’s easier that way. Shouldn’t be allowed out. I called out people’s numbers cheerily as we hurtled along. Every taut muscle in her body would relax. our eyes met for a moment and it was there. Walking down the street. on the way to God knows where. Date of Death. because it stank when I got it out of the fridge. but I want you to stop. that one. Yeah. a few hours — I don’t know — then I went downstairs and told the lady in the flat below us. He laughed when he saw me. Thursday was normally a good day. “Couldn’t face another day of the Nutter? Don’t blame you. they’re glad we’re not in school with their kids. They’re laughing — they don’t want kids like us in their classrooms. I’d got up. with a number like that? Everyone’s got one. two. and there was stuff. Three words. naughty! What you doing here. I’d have gone somewhere else. doesn’t know when to back off. Any day of the week. easy. She was only gone about thirty seconds. Spider. they look away. She was hooked. kind of leaning over. She’d think I was clever. who spoke to me like I was stupid and took me away from there. Most hang about in small groups. too. but I think I’m the only one that sees them. McNulty’s “special” class: the restless. empty eyes. Mum jerked the stroller to a halt and swung it ’round to face her. took me back to her flat. Sad kids. looked down at the ground. ambulance men. two. In her car. you can smell him.
man. Jem. “walk and talk. neither. then blew the smoke out theatrically and smiled. He drew on his cig like it was the best thing on earth. We must have looked so stupid. No chance. don’t look no one in the eye. Less than three months to go. now scooping up some stones and chucking them into the water. “Where you going?” he shouted behind me. “You got a nice smile.” he said. “Nah.” I said. his voice booming off the concrete walls. Listen. kicked out of my last “home. Hoped he’d give up and go away. where you going?” I was willing him to stay there. I didn’t mean nothing by it.” I mumbled. too close to my shoulder. Part of me wanted this more than anything else in the world — to have someone to hang out with. leaping off. I’ve got my reasons. do you?” I shrugged. too. “just fuck off. “OK. “Go on. not to follow. couldn’t help it. There were alarm bells going off inside my head. even — and they leave. a blinkered patch of gravel and trash moving under my sneakers. He reached into his pocket. but I felt closed in. I’ve got all this energy. The rest of me screamed to get the hell out of there. While his back was turned.” “Relax. “Hey.” He turned and kicked a stone into the canal. Don’t go there. He grinned back at me. breaking his bloody neck. catching up with me. Felt like the first time in years. In a few months. “Walk and talk. that’s personal. “Fuck off. to not get sucked in. the silly sod. the way you keep looking down. “Just walking.” and the one before that and the one before that. constantly moving — twitching. hood up. jumping back again. “People think you’re up yourself. All this poor bugger’s got is skiving off school and having a smoke by the canal.” He handed me a cigarette and flicked his lighter for me. balancing on the edge of the canal on the balls of his feet.” He did a little dance there on the towpath. head down. No explanations. “Whatever. He tried to chat a bit. People just don’t seem to get me. and breathed out again.” he said.I didn’t like being there under the bridge with Spider.” “You don’t like looking at people. They think rules and routine and clean hands and minding your p’s and q’s will make everything all right.” I mumbled. I don’t like personal comments. His voice faded away as I put some distance between us. I ducked past him and out onto the towpath. I thought to myself. That did it. Not a waxwork like at Madame Tussauds. He loped along beside me. You get used to someone — start to like them. In the end. Not what you’d call a life. almost — and that smell. brushing against me. They haven’t got a clue. well…I don’t like it. drawing in some of his stink at the same time. Guess you’d have to tell him to piss off to get rid of him. That’s how he’ll go. man.” I stopped. but nothing calmed Spider down. is it? I sat down on a heap of old railway sleepers. OK?” “OK. then. “So you’re new around here. man. I leaned forward and inhaled until it caught. and I just ignored him. I moved back quickly.” “Well. He was up and down. “Ta. I’m not a statue. climbing on the sleepers. and even then he probably wouldn’t. Spider. me being small for fifteen and him like a black giraffe on speed. And I thought. and watched as he extracted a crumpled packet.” “Yeah. be like that.” Drawing level. I got up quietly from my perch on the sleepers and started running. jumping off something. From behind me I could hear him calling. look. Made me smile. I carried on. Always telling me what to do. The nicotine made me feel less edgy. “Don’t you ever keep still?” I said. See you tomorrow.” he said.” I said. Don’t understand that I need my space. no good-byes. trapped there with him.” . have ya?” Kicked out of school. be like everyone else for a while. I’ll never say nothing nice to you again. “Got kicked out your old school? Been a bad girl. that’s all. “D’you wanna smoke? I’ve got some. I know it was outside. “Right. yeah?” I shrugged. I thought. everyone leaves. He filled the space with his gangly arms and legs. I looked at him jiggling restlessly from foot to foot. he’ll be gone.
No messing about. sir? I don’t need to be here. Because I could have sworn that as he’d sauntered over to his desk. Twenty-five minutes to go. nothing more. that’s where you’re heading. there was backchat.” But Spider’s unexpected return had broken the mood. general chat. but I’m not very fast.” Spider slumped forward with an exaggerated sigh and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “I feel fine. for a change. here comes the pep talk. standing there. can’t I?” “No.” “Keep your hands to yourself. “Unemployed. just like that. drawn up to his full height. “What do you mean by bursting in here like that? Go outside into the corridor and come back in like a civilized human being. Which this wasn’t. watching us. not sure how to take Spider’s apparent backdown. staring at the Nutter. a pattern. Now if you want to join in. and it had scared me. concentrate. He paused on the threshold. if you apply yourselves a bit more. we got it. sir. Anyway. it could be different. “Right.” There was a wary look in McNulty’s eye. everything gets muddled up. Dawson. I’d avoided him since then. stopping and saying something to each of us before going on to the next one. and do your best with this. If I try and read quickly. He worked his way back to the front. shouting out to him. no backchat. almost falling over. Spider was almost keeping still. “Why d’ya have to give me all this grief?” The Nutter took a deep breath. Everyone else was quiet. sir. this time. I can read. “Just do what I say. I really was. sir. didn’t need a puffed-up little tit like him to remind us. come in quietly like I’ve asked you. “Morning. and a pen on Spider’s desk. For once. a bit of a buzz going ’round. credits toward a degree. while they eyeballed each other. get a good report from school. keep my head down for a bit. Because I couldn’t stop myself wondering if I was the reason Spider was back. I’ll do it in my own time.” An ironic look to the rest of us. he suddenly stopped. They were meaningless. if you know what I mean. with just one leg jiggling. At the moment. “Cleaning lady. Even if it’s something I actually want to do.” “Garbageman. “OK. sort of. he didn’t even pause. It’s just your opinion. Kids started cheering and jeering. with the attitude you’ve all got now. lad. We were agitated now. My brain kind of needs time to sort out the words. “Good morning. Someone must have rattled his cage — whatever. I just wanna tell them to piss off. don’t you? “Time to knuckle down…important to get some qualifications…life’s not a rehearsal…” She’d been talking to the school. However. he was definitely on our case. “Sit down. make the best of your last year here. some paper. and I want you all to listen. and we’ll start again. Like shit. I can do anything I want.” . Had he gone for good? There was a low murmur as he reappeared. you can achieve so much more. but with force. Now!” What was he up to? “Come on. like he was just managing to keep a lid on things. It had made us feel exactly how he wanted us to feel. cool as anything. trying to get back on top of things: “Eyes on the page. to my social worker — all the usual suspects — and I figured I didn’t need the hassle anymore. the Nutter had had enough. Instantly the mood was broken. until now. He placed the comprehension sheet.” he said and carried on walking. but I’m here.” He was fighting a losing battle. how did that make you feel?” We stared at our desks or out the window. Then Spider blurted out. the words in front of me swam and danced. sir. Worried that victory had been too easy.” he said and nodded in the Nutter’s direction. thirty minutes. Bloody nerve. Instead he walked up and down between the desks. but something has brought you here. settle down. laughter. yawns — yeah. I have this problem. please. Who did he think he was? After lunch. “Ah.” McNulty spoke quietly. As for me. too.” “What you doing this for. There was a bit of shuffling about and sighing. Every eye in that classroom watched him go and kept watching the empty doorway. They’d picked up on the Nutter’s evil mood and decided not to push it. aren’t I? I’m here. “I don’t know why you’ve decided to join us today. but I’d no reason to think that Spider had given me a second thought. everyone. Don’t get me wrong. like Chinese or Arabic. We put our things in our bags or stuffed them into pockets. Then he turned and went out. McNulty kept picking away at people. waiting to see how it would play out. paper away. I was trying my best. All of you. Against a background of noise. We need to talk. Karen. without any warning. heads down. but basically everyone was sitting still and working — or pretending to — when. and Spider burst in like he’d been fired out of a cannon. Trouble is. get on with it. and I hope that you do. and waited for the standard bollocking: “Unacceptable behavior…Letting yourselves down…Lack of respect…” But it didn’t happen. chair legs scraping on the floor. met with an answering jeer. pens away. he’d winked at me. “OK. my foster mum. I’m ready to learn. isn’t it? It don’t mean shit. stumbling on his feet. that’s the whole point. The rest of us went quiet. the words don’t mean nothing. books away. The door swung back on its hinges and crashed into the wall behind.” “Checkout girl. and we’ll get on with the lesson.” When he got to me. Down by the canal I thought I’d felt the start of a connection. Dawson. had read me the riot act over bunking off school. get me some breathing space. We all knew what sort of futures were waiting for us after school. English comprehension test. turned and faced us. come on. I’m in now. while McNulty returned to the front and stood there.” Spider sauntered over to his desk. when someone tells me to do something. If you get some certifications. something exploded into the room. you need to go out.” Rolled eyes. Everyone was fidgeting. All your stuff away. I’d go along with it all. Let’s see what you can do.” There was a long pause. The Nutter wasn’t impressed.CHAPTER TWO The Nutter was cracking the whip. You know how it goes.
five years? Laura. 12252023. “Wasting my time. Life’s cruel. what are you going to be doing in a year. what would he say? Of course. realize what you can achieve.“My mum works on the checkout. like he was addressing a crowd. “And how. then. Too easy.” He brightened for a second. Breaking the law. “Five years’ time. got money in my pocket. Result.” He went ’round the room. Karen would be waiting outside the gate.” He drop-kicked his bag through the classroom door and swung out after it. “Me. Someone else. I’m gonna be cruising the streets in my black BMW. “Wasting my time. Why was this man torturing us. isn’t it? Christmas spoiled for his family for the rest of their lives. peddling in misery. but my hand went up to meet his like it had a mind of its own. They’re dangerous. got some vibes on the sound system. and he shook his head. sir? That little red Astra in the parking lot? Teaching? Working for twenty years? I’m tellin’ you. Stay away from drugs. Spider. are you going to do that?’ “Bit of this. Charmaine. “You got him good. two years. a half smile forming. His face shut down. The boy with no future. “I’m almost speechless. I held my breath. making us squirm like this? I took a deep breath and said. for Christ’s sake.” “Oh. then. but. “Yes. sir. what about you?” How could I possibly know what was going to happen to me? I didn’t even know where I was going to be living in a year’s time. . nothing heavy. sometimes? You walking home?” “No. Is that all you can aspire to?” “It’s the only way any of us are going to get any cash. man. “Spider?” “Yeah. Most of the kids hadn’t got a clue. they knew his first assessment had been pretty accurate. Dawson. man. bit of that.” he muttered under his breath. sir? I know what I want. What do you see yourselves doing? Come on.” I said.” “You don’t do drugs. and as I watched him I thought. please. Dawson? Drug dealing?” he said coldly. as sweet as I could manage.” I said. You all need to look a bit further. He sat on the back of his chair.” he barked. two seats along from me.” McNulty’s face changed. and there’s nothing wrong with that. Carry on. Or rather. “See ya around. I was just winding him up. just until I’d “earned her trust. then realized I was taking the mick. Jem. Spider high-fived me. “I want to be exactly…like…you. Dawson. Serve him right.” “Thanks.” On the way out of class. you start. I ain’t driving no Astra. Dawson. innit.” I needed to hang back for a couple of minutes. He shook his head. Buying and selling. McNulty looked at him witheringly.” he said.” “Sit down on your chair. She was walking me to and from school at the moment. good. too. you could see the bones sticking out as he clenched his jaw. you. got detention. What do you drive. he rose to the challenge.” No way I was going to let any of this lot see me with her.” “Yeah. “Get your math books out. see ya. His mouth was a hard line. “Sir.” I made myself look him right in the eye. nodding his approval. and shut up. When he got to Spider. “Like your style. could be the store manager if you wanted to. “Theft. I didn’t do that stuff normally. the cruel bastard.” The other boys jeered.” That was Charmaine. let the crowds of kids thin out. do ya?” “Nah. On Christmas Day. How old was he now? Forty-eight? Forty-nine? He’d go just around the time he retired.
ciggy lit. “No. I watched as he stooped to peck her cheek. heads down. Even his movements were subdued today. The garden was something else — some grass and a few flowers and that — but the great thing was all these little statues and things: gnomes. She didn’t look nothing like her grandson. No. all the stuff left over at the end that no one wants. like me. then he’d keep clear for a bit. and thought that if you saw them in the street you’d never know they were family. “She’s crazy. No windows open. in your face. half meaning it. Not you as well. isn’t it? The days of family photographs — Mum.” she said. isn’t it. and ran to catch him up. There was nothing for us to do. Nan. It took about five minutes to get to his place. “Got no money. Her eyes were amazing — hazel. but really I’m just trying to keep out of their lives — TMI. It’s only my nan there. “Cool garden. who’s the boss? Anyway. But that’s the way now.” “I’m not staying here. The overpowering smell of cigarette smoke made the air thick. all looking the same — did that ever happen? Is there anywhere that still happens? Not here. at least it’s dry. I could feel it soaking through my hoodie. “I dunno. set in clear white. It’s cold and rank and boring. starting to make my shoulders and the top of my back go cold. Then he pushed in the front door — it must have already been open — and shouted out. Spider made a face. His nan was perched on a stool at a breakfast bar. or no one. he wasn’t with them this Saturday. People think I’m shifty because I don’t like looking at them. From what I could tell. I couldn’t look away. There was a narrow hallway and then straight into the front room.” I hesitated. Every shelf. “They’re nice. newspaper in front of her. she was really .” He shook his head and waited while I opened the peeling tubular metal gate and walked up the path. and she’s OK.CHAPTER THREE It was one of those gray October days when it never really gets light. hold up!” I shouted. He stopped midkick.” I tried to keep my eyes down. she held my gaze.” He vaulted over the low wall and picked his way through the concrete crowd. Spider shrugged and sniffed. but for some reason I looked up briefly and. Think of every garage sale you’ve ever been to. excited. Her face was lined. Even when I was little. animals.” “Oh. sticking his hands in his pockets and setting off on his own. cup of tea at hand. then spun ’round and started off down the path.” I said reluctantly. with short spiky hair dyed a dark shade of purple. The rain wasn’t exactly falling — it was just there. despite the smoke.” Spider caught my eye. “No. “Come on. There’s always something going on with boys. Going to someone’s house was a big deal for me. I was worried about meeting anyone new. since Karen had loosened the reins a bit. after school and on the weekends. all dressed up.” I suggested. like anyone else. annoying me now.” he said. Having friends over for tea parties didn’t fit in with Mum’s lifestyle. one of those maisonettes at the front of the Park Estate projects. anyway. and you’ll get the picture. or even a fight. I clocked that. monkeys or lions.” I called out. his nan looked at me. hard-looking. he’d run with them until they had a row. every surface was covered with stuff: little china animals. plates. It was hilarious.” Nervous as I was. We’d kind of drifted into hanging out together. and we walked along together. him using the word mate. like me — black. It was in the middle of a row. like Spider. instantly. not knowing whether to look at them or not. He swung his leg at the head of a particularly ugly gnome. giggling. Don’t hurt them. Not all the time — Spider sometimes went ’round with a gang of lads from school instead. “Suit yourself. he was with me. “But apart from that?” “It’s crap. she was taking me in. “I’m Val. brown. I’d never been asked before. “We should go in the shops. where the concrete slabs of its walls met the dull green streak of the canal. That’s how it is. It’s like animals. hoods up. yellow. “Hi.” he said. “Only me. two kids. like the weather had sapped his energy. A plume of it wafted through from the next room. half taking the piss. sorting out the pecking order.” I said. God. Dad. in the filthy London drizzle. Families ’round here are what they are — just your nan. blotting everything out. I’ve brought a mate. those security guys are on my case. holding hands sometimes. As Spider stood back up. And I liked it. And it wasn’t like she was just looking. hanging in the air. let’s go to mine. I was never one of those girls who skipped out of the classroom in pairs. with a little square of garden at the front. on the ground floor. She was small. “It’s my nan. obviously. Anyway. and I followed Spider through there. whatever. and we were bored as hell. white. We were ’round the back of the shopping center. Like usual. vases. don’t. The rain was getting in my face. for whatever reason. white.” He snorted in appreciation.
“You can tell me. I gave him the finger.” he teased.” “Shut up. “Your aura. 02202054: forty-four years to go with a heavy smoking habit. Didn’t you?” he shouted out. Spider’s nan wasn’t the sort of person you argued with. “Leave it out. Leave her alone. you old witch. I couldn’t.” he said. playing with his whole body. and I felt like I was fitting in at 32 Carlton Villas just fine. It’s quite remarkable — I’ve never seen anyone with an aura as strong as yours. seeing gaze. and her words. all different colors. sorting through the heap of games. slow and carefully spoken. and as I shifted on the stool to get my balance. I put up a fight. “I’ve nearly had enough of you. Terry. but it’s a curse. She lost the plot years ago. Not yet. All around you. but he had the knack — that quickness and aggression. “You’ve got no chance. couldn’t even remember my name. There’s nothing. I’m so hot at this. “Who are you. and the white that you’re able to concentrate that energy. leave her alone. is the energy you carry with you.” “You mind your attitude. I understand.” As I slipped off the stool and went to find Spider.” She patted the stool. although I don’t think she meant them to. It was frightening and exciting at the same time. “No. she put her smoke down and took one of my hands.” she said. Bloody Britain’s Got Talent or something. I couldn’t think straight. I shrugged. his long legs dangling over one side.” He was.” She narrowed her eyes. She knew what it was like. that’s what. The purple shows your spiritual energy. “Yeah. like I was listening with my whole body.” She indicated the stool next to her with a nod of her head. lighting up another smoke. Boys like him all seem to know how to drive and shoot. Don’t go off on one. I like a cigarette as much as anyone. The first time I’d ever met someone who understood. You know that I don’t like contact. but he beat me every time. I could feel it in the air. It radiates ’round you. Don’t listen to him. a crackle. you haven’t. and on top of that there was something else going on. too.” she said. too.” I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. I’m always here. Spider came to my rescue. I wanted to tell her. Tells you more than you want to know sometimes. but I didn’t draw away. Jem. I should have known. and I thought. “Her name’s Jem. ’course I did. We watched the telly for a bit. I managed to wrench my eyes away from her piercing. I could feel her eyes drilling into my back.” The pit of my stomach lurched.seeing me. but fifteen years is a long time to keep a secret. feet twitching at the ankle.” shouted Spider. Nan. and I clambered up meekly. “I have never met anyone like you. The question was met by a snort of derision from Spider. God. then?” she asked. too. but someone else’s. “You see them. He put everything into it. “You have the most amazing aura I’ve ever seen. secondhand? Nah. “Not bad for a girl. She leaned back and sighed — I could almost see her breath.” “In a minute. as her skin touched mine. “You know where I am now. I clocked her number.” I mumbled. I still hadn’t stopped looking at her. I was like a rabbit trapped in the headlights of those eyes. We’re gonna watch the telly. And the aura tells you more about that person than anything else. that’s right. Spider was sprawled across an armchair. Just us lucky ones. Made me feel a bit queasy. “Na-an. don’t you?” “No. Jem. He smiled. And I wasn’t quite ready for that. “Sports or something else?” he said as he flicked through the channels. her hands small and lined with massive curled yellow nails. Don’t rush off. everything would change. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. even to someone like Spider’s nan. then spotted a black box on the floor. “Had a bit of practice. who’d wandered into the front room.” I said truthfully. Respect.” “She’s talking bollocks. “PlayStation?” He untangled himself from the chair and flopped down on the carpet. but how do you know? “Do you know about auras?” she asked. “Don’t take any notice of her. Sit here. son! You shut your mouth!” She leaned in closer to me and lowered her voice. the words sounding harsh. No. And I knew deep inside that once I started talking about it. Grand Theft Auto?” I nodded. I’m smoking. I’ll be here. Jem. went deep into me. but I wanted to know. concentrating like his life depended on it. not just my ears. Thousands of no-hopers queuing up for hours . “Suit yourself. Sit here a minute. The reek of stale smoke from her mouth was filling my nostrils. but there was only crap on. Everyone’s got one. but not everyone can see them. isn’t it? I wasn’t going to let him psych me out or anything. you!” She turned back to me. It’s bred into them. Purple and white. like electricity sparking between us. and we both felt it. Not telling becomes part of you. a buzz. It’s a gift. it was that thick.
Vultures. like one of those birds — hawks or buzzards or something. back to where they came from. the microwave door slamming. It’s not a future. Still. love. Suckers. not wanting to go in there and talk to her again. He was dead serious. Listening to us. is it? It’s just an ego trip. Spider unfolded himself from the chair. “See ya!” I called out from the front door to his nan. if I had some wheels.” He paused. I didn’t need to get involved in nothing like that. I’ll see you around. Won’t take long.” “I could drive ya. Spider and me. buttons beeping as she set the timer. Even the ones who could sing. I made for the door. money. “I’ll see you again.” I looked at him.” she said. s’alright. Retards. laughing at them. Didn’t need the hassle. Lightning breached the gap between us as her eyes met mine again. thinking they’re going to make it big. the whole lot? The Simon Cowells of this world just get as much money as they can out of them. Turned out we found the same things funny. “Your dinner’s nearly ready. . Do they really think the world is going to take them to its heart — fame.like cattle. “I’ll go with ya. What was it about that woman? “Bye. “I could get some wheels. trying to impress me.” I said a bit later. I guess. “I’d better get back. Felt good sitting there — despite the smoke and that stale smell that Spider brought with him everywhere — although I was aware of his nan perched in the kitchen all the time.” And she meant it.” “Nah. Waiting. I could hear his nan shuffling around in the kitchen.” I said. we had a good time. and then spit them out. Her face appeared around the kitchen doorway.
wrapping up the baby in an old towel. and there was donkeys. the killer response. but great. “Amber. panicking. cradling a cup of tea. stood shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Ah. the innocence. so he couldn’t see us and we couldn’t see him. overexcited little knot. wrenching shoulders apart and squeezing between bodies. nothing you could do about it now. The silence was filling my ears. You could tell he wanted to be anywhere but there. stretching his neck back to look up at the ceiling. Easier to pick the worst one. Job done. Are you the same? Is it only afterward that you think of what you should have said. he drew his arm back and slammed his fist into the guy’s face.” Spider drew the paper up in front of his face. and read it out in a nice. He shuffled to the front of the class. Wasting my time. I crumpled up the piece of paper and let it fall to the floor. Holidays. just me and my nan. Back at Karen’s. Write it from the heart. but I felt sick inside — the thought of that vulnerability. What was the point? The past was gone. the knowledge that the end is written for them even on their first day — it’s too much. gathering ’round in a tight. But then something flipped inside me and I thought. clear voice so we can all hear. I think it’s your turn next. I turned around. Tomorrow may never come. It might never happen!” and the familiar jeering and barracking started up. “Aww” when he’d finished. I didn’t like to look backward. all those places where nobody sees you and nobody cares. “Stop writing. Don’t worry too much about spelling and punctuation. None of his business. Bloody brilliant. We had chips and ice cream. I had just one thought in my mind — to disappear. Then one kid. Perhaps I should have made up something there and then. I’ll tell him how it is. I could feel every nerve ending in my body as I waited for McNulty to say my name. birthdays. spun a cozy little tale about the perfect Christmas. aching with embarrassment. we’re listening. Kind of what you’d expect. several candidates there — not that I’d tell the Nutter about any of them. nowhere in particular. Sitting with the other retards — we’re so special. ’round the class. suits me fine. “You do. not when I’m the center of attention. We stayed somewhere. The sea went on for miles and there was this huge beach. flapping the page down to his side. No. What was he expecting? The day Daddy bought me my new pony? Our holiday in the Bahamas? Me. find somewhere I could be on my own. eyes on the page in front of him. Give it a try. Came to school. kept my eyes down. he’d done a good thing. It had a great name. The room erupted as Jordan fought back and the rest of the kids turned into a baying pack.” And so he went. No? All right. Wishing I wasn’t here. Spider was vaulting over the rows of tables and chairs. Impossible to pick out one day and say that was the best one. his friends high-fived him as he made his way back to his seat.CHAPTER FOUR “I want you to write about your best day ever. I took a deep breath and started to speak. Kids ignoring me. presents ’round the tree. Fair play to him. it’s crap. a kid called Jordan. “My best day was when my nan took me to the seaside. weirdest thing ever. after all — but she was sitting at the kitchen table. She’d had the lot. When he got to the joker in the back. little kids. just pretended I was like everyone else. Suddenly. her face a washed-out gray. to make us think about our sad and pointless lives. described his little brother being born. I never wanted to go back to that torture chamber again. the put-down that would make them stay put down? Standing up there. Bored. This is the best day and the worst day. There was nothing he could do. do I have to do this?” he said. Now. “My best day ever. A crashing sound made me look up. I stayed out for hours. you start. You’re all in the same boat. There is only today.” And he was right. scared. I thought about sitting there and refusing to write anything. Yesterday was the same. Spider’s shoulders dropped a bit as he relaxed. that sort of thing.” Outright rebellion — cries of “no way” and “get lost. Karen: babies. didn’t want to see everyone looking at me. please. Actually.” A couple of kids started braying in the back row. days off. like Weston-Super-Something. “Time’s up!” Howls of protest. Doesn’t matter if you haven’t finished. But I don’t think that quick. And before long. No one’s going to be laughing at you.” McNulty said firmly. like usual. had a couple of days there.” The barracking subsided. I went ’round to the kitchen door. “Cheer up. When we got there I’d never seen so much space in my life. A couple of the girls said. Joel. “I want you to stand up and speak the words you’ve written. “Come on. and the room took on a different feeling.” There was a pause when I stopped speaking. I’m going to ask you to read them out loud. “problem” teenagers . I didn’t look up. until I got tired of walking in the dark. I don’t do little kids. love.” Inside my clothes I felt naked as I walked up to the front. deafening me.” I felt cold inside. everyone was listening as he told us about helping his mum in their bathroom at home. We went on the bus for hours. Just quickly. anyway. like usual. The class was quiet. I didn’t have any choice but to read out my words. if that’s what he wants. but in a good-humored way. I picked up my pen and started to write. I had a ride on a donkey. knew I’d made a mistake. then slipped out of the door and along the corridor. Finally…“Jem. Then someone shouted out. it was my turn. Got up. and I went to sleep. “OK. Come up to the front. McNulty sprinted to the back of the classroom and barged his way through the crowd. man. just leaned against the whiteboard. everyone was getting into this. My skin was tingling. and it’s gone. Spider was next. he went back to his seat. stand where you are. Had breakfast. I’d expected her to be in bed by the time I got home — it was gone midnight. instead of handing them in to me.” Another example of the Nutter’s cruelty.
“I’d better ring the police — I reported you missing. take this with you. “Jem!” she said. like she was going to start in on me. then thought better of it. sweet liquid hit my bloodstream that I realized how cold and empty I was. Twenty-two foster kids. . So I sat there through the night.” She didn’t seem angry just then.” I said. and climbed under my blankets without getting undressed. Where would I start? “Come in. just let out a big sigh. “OK. It was only when the warm.” She opened her mouth. She only had three years to go. only tired. we’ll talk about this in the morning. I was dog-tired.like me. “I just wanna go to bed. Worn her out. somewhere between being asleep and being awake. 07142013. Here. I clocked her number again. and nodded. We will talk about it. not a promise. Jem. sheets pulled up to my neck. put the cup down on the table next to my bed. “Are you alright? Where’ve you been?” “Out.” A threat. I registered the start of another grim day. I propped the pillows up and reached for my tea. I went upstairs. until the light seeped ’round the curtains and.” She handed me her cup. Sit down. still three-quarters full. but couldn’t close my eyes. I didn’t have it in me to explain everything.
“Whatcha wanna do now?” I wanted to see what would happen to him. Lots of kids feel like that. I saw him a couple of times. like so many battery hens. I don’t really do other people. they enjoyed sticking the boot into me. then cut off ’round the back of the shops. just follow him.” He patted his pocket. his number: 11252010. I don’t wanna rob him. Like we’re spies. he never went back to school again. For a few weeks there. As it turned out. or a piece of chewing gum stuck on your shoe. still looking back. as Spider had been suspended for three weeks.” “What you up to? We don’t need to rob no one. He’d bumped into me ten minutes before. half walking. Jem. “Where you going?” Spider called out. every school I’d been to. His face said. the old one in the sweater. but he just shrugged and said. man. He checked under his arm — yeah. There were rumors flying around about him being interviewed by the police. Don’t feel sorry for me. yeah? Let’s let him get in there and then go in. Wanna smoke?” We lit up and then started walking slowly toward the park. You’ve lost your marbles. then started scuttling off down the road. I got money. There it was again. Grandpa was hurrying along. so I didn’t look ’round or nothing. I was watching someone. and I was leaning against a wall. watching. not so many people there. “Let’s hang back a bit. You might say we were meant to be together. Looking startled and shifty. wading in like that. but especially me. If the Jordan incident had shown me anything. At the far end of the street. Grandpa stepped out into the road. but it didn’t make any difference. I knew that he could see us. that he was getting agitated. where the main road is. Like a bad smell that follows you around. well. keeping an eye on Grandpa as he weaved his way through the crowds. He’d gone down a side street. but I made sure he didn’t see me. too. all sorts. and hang out on my own. making a scene of us both? Made me feel a bit sad when I thought about it. . you just need to be away from it. You can put up with a certain amount. I took it for a couple of days and then I couldn’t stomach it anymore. Those few days I did a good job of keeping out of Spider’s way. and lowered my voice. Everything’s easier if I keep myself to myself. But like everything else. it had to stop. Although we were way back. asked me for some money. He looked around quickly. I’d had a friend. he’d have done more than give Jordan a black eye and a split lip. I’d set off for school like normal. He’s heading for the park. You might say I couldn’t shake him. as you know. What did he think he was doing. when a familiar sourness drifted into my nostrils and someone said in my ear. sort of.” And we kept on walking. Anyway. I guess if he’d known that. and I’d followed him along the High Street. puzzled. I told them where to go. trying to make it into a game. I had to face them on my own. “If you want something. and our eyes met for a second. Kind of missed him. And. They were like a pack of dogs with a bone. School lumps you in with so many people. an old dosser. though. but it gets to a point when you can’t take it any longer. “We’ve been rumbled. Spider turned up again soon enough. Now he was digging about in a dumpster on the other side of the road. “I wanna follow that guy. like we’d only seen each other five minutes ago. stepping up the pace as Grandpa turned a corner ahead of us. “OK. and what Jordan was going to do to him when they were both back in circulation. it had shown me what I already knew: Spider was trouble. “Whatcha doing?” My attention was all on the old bloke. But for the time being. just ask. half a burger in its wrapper. He tucked the burger under his armpit and crossed his arms. embarrassing. not on his last day. “What for?” I stopped. what do you know? I couldn’t keep him out of my life. that Wednesday I’d taken my eye off the ball for a minute. what’s the date today?” “Dunno. just said to him.” “Jem and Spider sitting in a tree. with the park on the other side. seeing if anyone else was after it. Been the same everywhere I’d lived. it was just what I was used to. “I wanna go this way. anyway. and. make my way across to the park or down to the canal. We got within about thirty feet of him when he turned ’round and clocked us. He got to the end.” He caught up with me. he turned ’round again and started half running.” Obviously.CHAPTER FIVE McNulty’s class was still buzzing from all the drama. “Spider. He knew I’d seen him get that burger out of the trash. K-I-S-S-I-N-G. but I didn’t want to frighten the old guy. That whole thing at school had been. I set off after him. it’d got too complicated. I was about to say to Spider that we should call it quits when.” “No. the sort of trouble I didn’t need. the burger was still there — then looked back over his shoulder. twenty-fifth?” The old bloke had pulled something out of the dumpster.” Spider said.” I said quickly. “What you gonna do without your boyfriend here? No one to defend your honor.
eating his manky old burger. “What?” Half-one. man. drink up. If he wasn’t dead now. I touched Spider’s arm. He went halfway up onto the hood and then flew through the air. “He alright. What’s wrong with you — losing your marbles? And Jem’s got…private tutoring. He was scared. he would be soon. was he?” “No. high-pitched. She knew the score. Val was sitting on her perch in the kitchen. killed him. Today was his day. “Come on. nowhere to hide. isn’t it? You never know what’s ’round the next corner. Nothing you could do about it. but which kept coming back up: Perhaps it hadn’t been his last day today after all.” “I know. on that road near the park.” “Seen a dead body before? Or was this your first time?” Damn. Spider was at the end of the street now. Maybe meeting me had made it his last day. that’s right. seeing. taking it in.” I said. let’s see if he’s alright. I should think. though. “Let’s go. Not someone. “Actually we need to chill a bit. don’t they? This was real — a real body. head jerking forward and then back. we were at Spider’s. Someone near me was screaming. “You know I’ve been suspended. Just gone. Not such a tough guy after all. did you?” I caught Spider’s eye. anyway. We stood still for a few seconds. on and on. eh? Can’t even cross the bloody road now. Heaven? More like hell for my mum. can you?” She pottered about making a pot of tea while we crashed in the sitting room.” I sipped the hot tea while Spider and his nan both sat dunking their biscuits and slurping down soggy.” He peeled himself away from the crowd and we headed off toward his house. glancing at the kitchen clock. starting to gather ’round. Jem? Shakes you up. Bloody traffic. I needed some space to get my head around all this. “Yeah. A heap of mismatched old clothes with something inside.” She put down her cigarette. not anymore. He had echoed the thought that was haunting me: We’d caused it. did she? . I could see through the gaps to the body. Just saw an old bloke get run over. choking on a gobful of meat and bun. “I think I’ll just head back to Karen’s. “Yeah. then?” Her gaze switched to me — direct. We saw it all. No need to worry.The car hit him straight on with a sickening thud. Died right there. Before I knew it. Those hazel eyes that saw my secrets. It was like one of those road safety commercials on TV. leaving me trapped there with her. Perhaps that’s what would have taken him. I went up behind him. come inside for a bit. Spider started to run toward them. where my mum was. limbs waving crazily. I’d chased him into that road.” “Shocking. you were just walking along and saw it all. and Val smiled with him. Nan. Go on. puffing out as she did. Perhaps he was heading for a heart attack. “So. “Got off early. doesn’t it?” I nodded. Or nowhere. crumby mouthfuls. man. craning over the throng. Spider bent to kiss her. neither of us wanted her to know that this old guy spent his last minutes terrified we were going to mug him. Whoever he was had gone now. she didn’t mess about. She put the tray on the pouf in the middle and eased herself into an armchair. these chairs. Sure enough. I stopped at the gate. “No. he’d have been sat in that park. “That right? Here. I’ll make you both some tea.” He grinned. I didn’t want to see any more. Val heaved herself down from her perch and shuffled over to the kettle. People were screaming. Nice sweet tea.” I had another reason to hesitate. You don’t wanna be alone after something like that.” I said quietly. do you?” Spider went off to the bog. Gone to wherever people go. “We freaked him out. did you?” she asked. Spider was subdued. And the thought that I tried to keep down. before midnight. then came in to join us with three mugs and a box of biscuits on a tray. “You two going to settle down and read some books now. but they use dummies for that. that sort of thing. “You alright. that’s what you need. Her friend led her away.” I hung back. “No good for me back. sit down. shaking his head.” There was a little quiver in his voice. finally lying on the ground. If it wasn’t for me. She shifted forward in her chair.
next to the tray. The ones that go. When he let go of her hand. No warnings or nothing. quick as a flash. displaying a fine set of crooked.” She’d caught me with my guard down. “It’s not a bad thing. Never saw them before. “Go on. “I found her. look. None of this”—she rested her hand on her back—“aches and pains. it rested affectionately on his face for a second. I suppose it opened up my spiritual side. It was going to happen…. on the mantelpiece. like I said. He grabbed it before it made contact and gave her a kiss on the cheek. I hesitated. “What do you see. Heart attack. quietly. “I wanna show you my new sound system. a young man’s life. he lived life to the full. I jumped up. Jem. love.” I said. You miss them. Like my Cyril. I knew that she would believe me. Put your granddad back then.” I moved a couple of ornaments farther to the side. look. love. everything heading south. “what sort of aura did he — Cyril — have?” Her face registered surprise. Sure enough. eyes focused on me even as she scrabbled in the pack and then lit another cigarette.” She put her hand back on the box. Dropped dead at forty-one. “He’s not a bad lad. “You know. We know what it’s like to lose someone. and went out like a light. the photo was standing next to a sturdy wooden box. orange teeth. Val leaned right over and smoothed her hand across the top of it.” Her hand shot up to give him a smack. Overdose. just his head and shoulders. unburden some of the loneliness it had brought me. “No. Not a bad lad. Come on. . I carried it carefully and put it on the pouf. her voice low and intimate.” What the…? Sure enough. but it had the power to reach you. Released. like. Jem?” I recoiled back into the sofa.I should have just told her I didn’t want to talk about it. Jem. “Fetch it over. “Me mum.” Reluctantly. leave her alone. I had an urge to hold her bony hands in mine. Just like that. pick him up. No. I could share this thing. “This your way of cheering Jem up? Daft old cow. “Nan. Just unlucky. where he’d been leaning. I glanced behind me as I went out of the sitting room into the hallway. I’d love to know that myself. Val was still looking at me.” Spider moved from the doorway. and put his arms around his nan. not the photo. smooth wood with a little metal plaque on the top: CYRIL DAWSON. “Unlucky. But I only started seeing them after he’d gone. but he had a great life. The grief and that. DIED 12 JANUARY 1992. “What do you see? I know you do. you. it’ll blow you away. She didn’t mean to.” She nodded again. lived like a lion. and she nodded like she’d known it all along. I went over to the fireplace. less of that. But.” I reached up to the frame. “Just that you miss them so much. “the ashes. A handsome man. and took hold of the box.” He led me up to his bedroom. slowing down. self-consciously. if you do this to people I bring here. son. AGED 41 YEARS. with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. It was surprisingly heavy — thick. I’ll never have any mates. and then she smiled.” I said. “Go on. I liked that — I liked the fact that she didn’t get embarrassed or start gushing about how terrible it was. in that box.” she said sharply.” “Val. thumb stroking the brass plate. feel her power. I was teetering on the brink — she was drawing me to her.” Then. speaking before I’d really thought about it. He’s over there.” She clicked her fingers.” “Here. among the china dogs and brass candlesticks. go on. one of those posh ones done in a studio. She died in bed. We’re the same.” I looked across to the wooden shelf above the fire. make you want to smile back at it.” Spider’s voice cut through the energy lines between us like a sword. “Everyone says it’s a terrible thing to go young. Her mouth formed an O. there was a framed photo. I mean. man. there was something about her — resistance was useless. bless him. I don’t think so. Just a piece of paper in a frame. I kept going. Black-and-white. Jem. She just nodded. I wanted so much to tell her. No one knew there was anything wrong. He won’t bite you. For God’s sake.
After all that. any time after ten.” he’d said. It was what you were really feeling. I told myself I would just go for a while. my hand felt the smoothness of the knife’s plastic handle. I didn’t like people. My mouth had gone dry. Baz was a wellknown psycho. Naturally. me pushing him away. carrying my shoes so I wouldn’t make a noise on the stairs. studied his hands. and part of me wanted to be out there. and there was no way I was getting into all that boy-girl stuff. twitchy. You made a show of me.” “Dunno. As for Karen. I walked quickly. see what it was like.” There was something about his sullenness when he said. but it was a big step to anything more. I almost felt like reaching out. but I had to get this clear with him. I’d picked it up on my way through the kitchen. but it’s nothing to do with you.” He was smiling a bit now. If you’re being mugged on the street. chucking stones at a can. I know. For so many reasons. lanky. but a party on a Saturday night sounded suspiciously like a date. retard. Just mates.” “I didn’t want him to get away with it. man.” I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to be careful. People hardly noticed me threading my way through: They were getting loaded. Not someone like Spider — long. I needed to suss him out. “You do know that there’s no ‘you and me. Why had I ever got involved? He stood up.’ don’t you. he’s going to hug me. which I rarely did. Karen wouldn’t let me out that late. maybe.” “Yeah. I won’t even piss on you. I pictured someone goodlooking — not ten out of ten. No one else had ever been able to tease me like that. “It’s not funny. I was on the lookout for Spider.” that made me think he felt the exact opposite. getting into each other. Almost. OK? If someone disrespects you. He had no right to make a joke of it.” “Yeah. What you said — I could tell it was real. We were down by the canal again. I paused. “Yeah. but at least an eight. But of course I didn’t. Mates. just a night out. not that I’d ever say it. I’ll walk on by. “Safe.” “Yeah.” I’d thought about it for a long time. Spider. I’d decided not to go hundreds of times. And now you’ve put me straight. Mates is good. “What?” “We’re not. I can look after myself. but it would have to be someone decent.” I said quietly. I thought. Sly comments. Just mates. Third floor. ‘bout you and me. you know. I know what you’re like.” He looked away. Come along. finally. I’ll see. He said it so casually.CHAPTER SIX The music was throbbing through the stairwell. And he was right. The knuckles on the right one were nearly healed up now. Hasn’t he listened to anything? But his hand formed a fist. came toward me. though. If I’d ever thought about it. man. and he lightly punched my arm. I’ll let them. he was starting to know me. Instead our hands met. with a major personal cleanliness problem. Shit. knuckles touching. a dangerous guy to be around. Saturday night. find out whether those retards at school were on the right track after all. That was better. fists together. If I see you on fire. Anyway. not make either of us look stupid. On the other hand. I picked my way over legs and bodies. “Listen.” I said. Spider?” He looked up. I slipped out through the kitchen while she was watching the telly in the sitting room. ’course. they didn’t like me. Nightingale House. I’d never use it. cursing that day under the bridge. neither. Jem. “Yeah. and. I’d never been asked to a party before. bit of humor. relaxed a bit. second.” “So are you coming on Saturday? Not a date. just something to boost my confidence. but I don’t need a knight in shining armor. with a question mark in my voice. I wouldn’t have to stay if I didn’t like it. I’m not a complete bitch. It’s made everything worse.” “You know at school…what did you do that for? Wade in like that?” Spider frowned. getting into the beat. I’ve told you I’ll never say nothing nice to you. bit of distance. he’s a tosser. man. “Baz is having a party. I was churning inside. “Spider?” I’d said. being normal. I’ll never do nothing nice for you. I’d just about got my head around having somebody to hang out with. “Safe. “He was disrespectful. I’m not aggressive or anything — but if trouble . People were so bloody difficult. like…together. “I’m in. putting my arms ’round him. the day after the tramp died. “I’ve got comments all the time now. You made a right show of yourself. And a couple of weeks to live. putting an arm out. cocooned in the protection of my hood. what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. OK?” I grinned. make me smile. it was a bad idea: First. More or less every minute between him asking me and me going up those stairs a couple of days later. Deep in my pocket.
I’ll be back in a minute. dope. it seemed like it was someone else they were talking about. despair. and the gap behind me had closed up. the funny angle she was lying at when I found her. I realized I didn’t actually need them. and put his long arm across my back. They were bullying him. Anyway. Honor among thieves. and handed it back to me. The eleventh of December this year. whether Spider would notice — or mind — if I wasn’t there when he got back. Jem. and as the strength started to go from my legs. He half turned. this is Jem. being small for my age. but I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me. He was covered in tattoos. It fell out onto the floor. Given all the people hanging around.” I watched them disappear together into a back room while my mind tried to make sense of something. Hands. music so loud you couldn’t think. including the one with the tattoos. Considering I didn’t know anyone and didn’t like being physically close to people. And all the time. He bent down and yelled. it was so much worse than what I’d imagined: boiling hot. was Spider. the lot. wondering how long I could stick it out. I didn’t see how I could get much farther forward. “Yeah. but there’s no meat on .” “You need to take off your hoodie. Another little secret to help me through. towering above them. I took it without thinking. but she’s mean. Spider grinned. giving me a chance to relax and breathe again. held between my fingers. I was feeling light-headed. quite a few were checking out way before that. wondering what the reaction would be. Then I thought of my mum. my body was held up by all those around me. “Hey. Four days before Spider. Something made me open my eyes again — something different about the noise. Of course. I’d have to go inside. “Nothing. After a while. shoulders. My mind wasn’t quite working the way it should — I hadn’t exactly stopped thinking. and I mean covered. The tattooed guy had looked me up and down when he’d come over to Spider. Through the smallest of gaps I saw a familiar logo on the back of a yellow T-shirt. 12112010. overwhelming smell of smoke. A group of guys. I wasn’t going to be able to just walk into the place. I’d forgotten the knife. intimidating him. I was going to have to push my way through. Anyway. trying not to elbow anyone as I drew it up and over my head. Spider leaned down to me and yelled. It was the ones on his face that freaked me out. It’s a bit hot in here — I think I need a drink. and with the numbers thing burning a hole in my head. close up. but no such luck. neck. while they ranged ’round him like hyenas. I figured the threat of a blade would make people back off long enough for me to leg it. face. I was definitely feeling edgy now. elbows all going in. ducking down to squeeze through the sea of legs. You don’t want to mess with her. He was saying something to me. but I guess I’d been breathing it in anyway. Drawn into his side. “Go on. I didn’t object. Most of them were only going to make their forties or fifties. “Good vibes. Spider! I took a deep breath and dropped to the floor. man! Here…” From his other hand he offered me a big roll-up. and his arm supported me. don’t they.” A wink of the eye told me they were laughing at me. things were heating up. Now his number was drifting ’round my mind and I was trying to make sense of it — I may not have taken a draw on Spider’s spliff. I wriggled out of the sweatshirt.” he shouted in my ear. were shoving somebody around. all hairspray and perfume. booze. It was easy enough to find Baz’s place: The music got louder and louder as I made my way up the stairs and along the hallway. I handed it back to Spider. They say average life expectancy’s going up. there was no doubt what was going on. but squashed in there. I don’t know.” He was right. it was pretty easy to worm my way through — people didn’t seem to take offense. “It’s good stuff. bobbing up and down as its occupant moved in time to the beat. there’s no need for that here. and the concentration of spaced-out kids got denser. Hold on. someone pushing against me. but I guess that doesn’t apply to kids from the projects of Greater London. Across the room. no threat to them. who’s this you’ve got with you? She’s hardcore. holding me at my waist. Casualties of how we all live now. I resurfaced by Spider and tapped him on the shoulder. but I was determined to go through with it now. I could feel the sweat running down my front. I was fifteen and five foot nothing. It didn’t matter. picked it up off the floor. I’d got about ten feet in when I started to panic. right?” Someone ducked down.” I looked at the roach. trying to burst out through my ears and eyes and nose. but I couldn’t hear a thing. “I’ve got to do a bit of business. It was just pot. “What’s up?” he asked. never seen nothing that extreme before. Quite a few people had noticed — they just laughed. There was no air and the noise was so loud it was like it was actually inside my head. this was something of a tall order. I’d hoped to see Spider out on the landing. I guess — cars. Despite our little chat. I hung around with Spider’s new pals. That was when Tattoo Face was going to die. guys. Was this how she started? A harmless toke? No way I was going down that road. Battered and dazed just by having made it there. rancid armpits shoved in your face. the familiar smell of his BO was almost welcome. In the middle of it all. just knowing it was there was enough to get me out the door and into the dark. I shut my eyes and pretended to be getting into the music. She’s little. What the hell was going on around here? Without Spider next to me. Big as he was. as if to say. wedged between a guy with his T-shirt completely soaked in his own sweat and his girlfriend. Inside. Arms. people crammed in. I held my breath. “Spider.” I wouldn’t normally like people talking about me. blue smoke spiraling out of the end. and sweat. He’s tall. He was holding his hands up. nothing heavy. I’d rather not have known. no escape. smiled. but it was just all taking a bit longer than usual.came looking for me. a big bloke came over to us and had a word with Spider. Spider. or you’ll melt. though. What the hell did that mean? Then it all kind of came into focus again. drugs. but it wasn’t something I could switch on and off. people’s numbers right in front of me.
Spider thanked the guy. it’s time to go. He looked quickly behind me. “It’s just being out at night. and instead of shrugging him off.” “I’m not stupid. but there was something about him. you’d have picked him. I’ll just do it for a few months. I wanted to protect him. he was “The Man” around here. I’ll be fine. baseball cap and shades on.” He was still nodding and mumbling to himself as we made our way through the crowd. carrying all that lot?” Even in the dark. that’s all.” “What if you get mugged or something. do you?” “Nah.” I said. I wanted to save him. like the cat that got the cream. He was strutting now. Jem.” “I’m not criticizing. something weird was happening. sorry I’d come in the first place. . They trust me. for bringing it with me. For the first time in my life. Two thousand. long way with a little money in your pocket. it was hilarious.” “Sod off. and you get invited to Baz’s party — a bloke who three weeks ago wouldn’t have spat on you to save your life. so in the end I asked him straight out. Spider snorted. They just…they just wanted to make sure I didn’t screw up.” He grabbed my arm. You can go a long.him. I was starting to hope that his number was wrong. glad to be getting out of there. I didn’t feel safe. But I knew that it was real. If I’d asked you to pick out someone from the whole street who was up to no good. “I’ll be alright. And I’m not gonna. I’ve just got to take a little package somewhere and then bring another one back. and my stomach flipped over to see him like that. not real. really. After a couple of minutes. Nothing I can’t handle. You’re not going anywhere. “Come on. Jesus. “Spider. “I’ve got two thousand quid in here. It’s all gonna be cool. but I did want him to think about it before he got in too deep. “Yeah. God help me.” “Put the bloody envelope away before someone sees. wafting his familiar stink out into the night air. They trust me with it. The thing was. He said something. reached into his inside pocket. Spider. I didn’t need an introduction: This was Baz. “What are you doing?” He smiled the smile of a man with a secret he was just bursting to tell. Spider didn’t show any signs of telling me about it. whatever it is you’re doing. I’d got involved. the way he carried himself. ’course. then darted into a shop doorway and beckoned to me. and Spider was tainted with it. Baz is using you. and then he was back with me. If it wasn’t risky. “What the fuck is going on?” “Nothing. The night air was shockingly cold after the sweatbox of Baz’s flat. He looked so bloody shifty. One way or another. with a chill. what have they got you doing?” “It’s just helping out. I felt stupid now. man. mate. I wasn’t just observing. “Oh. “Are you alright?” I asked.” “Package?” My heart sank. Then he leaned down toward me and almost whispered. There was no one near enough to have heard. that it was all just in my head. Another couple of weeks in this hole. I let him steer me toward the front door. Jem. head nodding like a bobblehead dog’s. with Spider and me. I’ve got you and your blade to protect me. I saw all those guys ’round you just now. And it made me feel sad. that’s all. Jem. no problem. I didn’t want to spoil it for him. and.” I said. I could see his big grin. The bit of aggro in the corner hadn’t escaped anyone’s notice. Nothing special to look at. you see. not trouble. anyway. You can be my bodyguard. Everything’s cool. and let’s get out of here. Spider. No need to barge this time: People were making a path through. Let’s get out of here. and you could tell he was going over the top. I squeezed in next to him. More than that.” We were cutting through the High Street now. He opened his jacket. and they all laid off Spider. Got one myself. So vulnerable. “No. You’re the one who’ll get busted. Everything’s cool. What have you got yourself into? Are you in some sort of trouble?” “No.” I looked out of our alcove. someone else came out of the back room.” And I thought. and drew out an envelope. so sad.” He stuffed it back in his pocket and we set off again. he was checking out in two weeks. Fancy a spell on the inside. Suddenly — out of nowhere — you’ve got a new sound system. he’d do it himself. I’m careful. Couple of years and I’ll be out of here. It’s cool. “Shut up. you’ve got money to spend. We walked down the stairs in silence.
The head. let it all blow over. “Right. Jem. how a prick like him had to have all his boys there to intimidate me. His hand shot out. Yes. There were kids hanging out of the windows. Three rows behind me in the classroom. I just want you to let me get past and leave me alone. Biding his time. “I don’t think you realize what trouble you’re in — carrying an offensive weapon. big style. “I don’t like you. “Headmaster. Big mistake. Still holding on to me. It irritated me. the thought of his eyes on the back of my head made my scalp itch. all the time. It felt good not to be at the bottom of the heap. please. Sue. But I didn’t care about the school or the kids there.” With my wrist still clamped in his grip. like McNulty had lobbed a ticking bomb in front of him.” “No. and saw two of Jordan’s mates following. My hand tightened around the handle of the knife in my pocket. I think they were doing it to frighten me. “Miss Lester. Just let me get past. threatening behavior. and it would all go away.” And then it started: the questions. I kept thinking.CHAPTER SEVEN Of course. Every one of them was looking at the blade. and there was a bit of respect now. I didn’t stand a chance unless I called on my secret friend. but feeling trapped. Tosser. who’d been signing some papers. it was agreed that I would be interviewed further at the police station. I was walking ’round by the science lab when I realized there were people closing in behind me. ’round the corner and right into Jordan himself. perhaps taken a punch or two. The knife sat on the desk in front of me — a silent witness.” he boomed. Someone had seen me at the party. Instantly. and he pushed me in the middle of my chest. McNulty walked straight past the school secretary in her office and knocked on the head’s door. Thank you. The office was bulging at the seams by the time they were all there. Taking the advantage. We didn’t wait outside like usual. visibly recoiled. he led me to the headmaster’s office. but they were mostly teasing. others gathered in doorways. She’s a gangsta now! Gangsta babe!” I was starting to see why Spider was walking taller. I’m not going to run. He broke cover one day during morning recess. I see. I shoved past Jordan. the disappointment. Get on to your classrooms.” I was talking tough. This was serious business now.” They’d all frozen. Eventually. “are coming with me. I know I should have kept my eyes down. we’ve got a serious issue to deal with here. and I got the usual grief from her. just sat there while they talked at me. and the association with Baz was keeping them quiet. I don’t want to hear it. walking in there and then. they got Karen and my social worker. Karen was waiting for me when I got in. took my fingerprints. bent down. There was no mistaking his air of triumph. Then he picked up the phone. I had a split second of feeling relieved before I ran straight into McNulty. You could feel the ripple of excitement passing through the school as I was carted away in the cop car. bullying…” And on and on and on. It was only when I thought about Spider that I felt a sharp twinge in my stomach.” “He’s not my —” “Shut up! I’m talking. eventually they would run out of steam. full of self-importance. Sod it. bell’s about to ring.” he said to me. the accusations. but I knew he was watching. ring the police and ask them to come here. Still holding me. This is probably the last time I’ll be here. it wasn’t so sly. He’d reappeared at school on the Monday after Baz’s party and kept his distance from me. They’d better get down here. but even I couldn’t kid myself this time. like a copper on the telly retrieving his evidence. the lectures. most of the kids that had tormented me before left me alone. too. I went back to school. that feeling of power. “Where you going. He’d got the evidence. He’d got me now. but a week later it all blew up again. But on the edge of this. you shut up. insolence. with grim satisfaction. would I ever see him again? They did it all formally — booked me. gangsta?” “None of your fucking business. Friends in high places. I looked ’round. in. If they locked me up now. I’d kind . Not just the head and the police. But he’d got under my skin. And ring the home contact for Miss Marsh. I wanted to believe that if I just kept quiet. and I don’t like your boyfriend. he took a hankie from his pocket. I was well and truly in the shit. said nothing. To be honest.” He placed the knife on the head’s desk. To try and calm her down. I thought. who gave no resistance. They’d got me in a quiet corner. Big mistake bringing that to school. I pulled the knife out and held it in front of me. too. looking rapidly from me to the Nutter and back again.” He liked it. As they led me out. “You. and this on top of disruptive behavior in the classroom. were Jordan and his crew. “No. “It’s all over. my heart pounding away like crazy. he grabbed my wrist and squeezed so hard that the knife fell to the ground. and I wasn’t thinking straight.” he said. I thought. I caught Jem Marsh threatening another pupil with a knife on school grounds.” “I’ve got nothing to say to you. but I wasn’t that bothered. “Don’t upset Jem. I want to talk to you. and picked up the knife in it. I blanked them all out. and kept on walking. There were still a few comments about me and Spider and the company we were keeping. We’ve got a pupil with a knife. there were five of them altogether. searched me.
another “fresh start. with knowing that you’re never really safe anywhere and that it was all going to end sometime today.” somewhere away from the housing projects. but I was keeping myself to myself — watching what was going on. My CD player was blasting out the Chili Peppers. I listened to her footsteps going heavily down the stairs as I slid down one wall and clutched my knees to my chest.” Her words started to break through my brick wall. I shredded what I could. I sat in my room. Karen and Sue took turns sitting in with me. Karen rocketed through my door. didn’t it? If you tell us. She was getting to me. They tried being nice: “You’ve got to understand that it’s very dangerous to carry a knife. but the main set was still recognizable. I fixed my eyes on the floor. Once it was all out there. though. “What have you got left now?” And she walked away. boiling at the injustice. My hairbrush and earrings and a couple of books flew across the room. leaving more or less the clothes I had on — that was all. threw the rest around wildly. tomorrow. and I hurled it with all my strength toward the mirror. “Jem. I brought my fist down on the bed. Why hadn’t they picked up Jordan for bullying? Why pick on me. Let’s have a cup of tea and talk about it. and now I’d trashed it. Karen was desperate to coax something out of me — her chance of being the one to reform me was slipping away. It wasn’t enough. and away from Spider. I went along with everything. You’ve not shown that at home. I got up and swept my arm across the top of the chest of drawers. Something happened. the only friend I’d ever had. On top of that I had a monthlong expulsion from school. Like a dropped milk bottle. Bits of plastic flew off. I grabbed it and wrenched it away from the wall. so I could do anything now. The plug came out. but where would I start? With Jordan. Instead of the hot blast of rage. just bounced up again — a pathetic gesture. And just when things were starting to get better. It’s just as likely to be used back on you. there would be nothing to protect me. I was tired of being me. knowing another move was coming up. on my own. The mirror was shattered but the CD player was still in one piece. It wasn’t once I’d opened the window and lobbed it as far as I could. A long five hours later. She wasn’t used to failure. it’s important that you tell us everything you can.” she said. They’re cracking down on little thugs like you. with an appointment to go back to the police station in three days’ time to hear whether I was going to be charged.” They tried threatening me: “You’re looking at custody if this gets to court. It didn’t add up to much. I had nothing left to lose. I ripped up a T-shirt. That was better. I was released back into Karen’s care. with Mum. I hadn’t had a lot of stuff to start with. a strangely comforting thought trickled through me — I had nothing. I don’t believe that you’re a violent person. I picked it up again and flung it against the wall. but not feeling it. but didn’t tell them one thing.” They got nothing. there was cold fury as she took in the state of my room. didn’t cause no trouble. They tried to get me to talk. too. Anything I wanted. with McNulty. with Spider and the party. I huddled there. it will help us to understand. the next day? I couldn’t do it — it would be like scooping out the soft flesh from a snail’s shell. “You silly girl. being apart from people. making me think that I could be listened to. It hardly made a noise. I was grounded at Karen’s while Social Services decided what to do with me. tried to block out her voice. And then. it shattered on impact as it hit the front path.of withdrawn from everything. a tight ball of blackness. when I was just defending myself? Why did they think things would be any better for me anywhere else? Moving you on doesn’t solve the problem — it just gets you out of one person’s hair and into someone else’s. All I could do was sit and wait. to stay strong. I was there. everything had gone wrong again. All the shit I’d put up with over the years. worming their way into my head. .
the dregs of the milk still slopping around.” And for some reason. I thought. Some went past. I turned back up the path to the shops and headed ’round to Spider’s house.” He was starting to dance about on his toes again. I knew that sooner or later they’d catch up with me — lecture me. Spider. confine me. “OK. He looked a mess at the best of times. for this moment.” “I think you’ve got time to take a shower and find some clean clothes. And then. The last thought that I’d had before I went to sleep was still in my head: I had nothing left to lose. needy. mound of cigarette ashes on the saucer between us. once the shock of seeing someone other than his nan there had sunk in. I nipped up someone’s front path and grabbed a pint of milk sitting outside the door in the cold: something to wash down the toast. As it started to spread. It was still only half past seven and there were no signs of life. living in the moment. move me — but for now. second pot of tea on the stove. love. the sky. “I suppose I should tell you to go to school. just like that. I could feel a little tremble in my chin when I looked at him. “I’m fine. The bottle was a good sixty feet away from me now. my stuff. on her perch. still working despite a cracked face: twenty to seven in the morning. “You’re an early bird. just in case. bless him.” And that’s how Spider found us when he emerged at about nine: me and Val side by side at the breakfast counter. Greetings from England. Get yourself a cup from the sink. although that background buzz was there. eyes sort of small and puckered. Then out onto the landing and carefully downstairs. Let’s go into town. or nearly. I unpeeled my stiff legs. looking for bigger stones. and I said. I felt better than I had in a long time. I went up to the front door and my hand hovered over the doorbell. with a cup of tea in one hand and a smoke in the other. I’ve got some spends. like I’d look a bit desperate. the walls. He clapped his hands together. it wobbled. like he’d been asleep for a hundred years.” . threatened to fall over the edge. heading for the Thames. Jem. but didn’t quite do it. when it popped up. perching on the sleepers where I’d had my first conversation with Spider.” Val’s eyes flicked up to search his face at that. hitting the water with a smack! I got up and peered over. just hanging. you smelly article!” she said. love?” she said. and come and sit down. muted. and I’ll get me sneakers on. I noticed Spider sloping out of the room. the water. took it over the edge. not that quickly. I should have put a message in it. you could hear them enter the water — plip! When they hit the target. Damn. like someone had crumpled him up and thrown him away. that tickled me: the thought of some kid in France or Holland wading out into the sea to get my bottle and pulling out a bit of paper to find my message: Up Yours. “Boys! What can you do?” Despite his protest. One by one. you naughty kids. For some reason. slathered on some peanut butter and walked out. like she’d been expecting me. he said exactly the right thing. so early. though. Not many people around. The second one got it right on the neck. I put the bottle on the edge of the canal bank and scooped up a handful of stones. eating as I went. aren’t you?” He looked at me. The first one missed. “What’s all this?” he asked. I won’t say nothing if anyone comes ’round here. let’s go! Pour me a cuppa. but this was something else. Light started seeping into the edge of the sky. and when he came back he was in jeans and a clean T-shirt. I turned away quickly. Nan. feeling stupid. surrounded by broken stuff. the familiar energy fizzing through him. I scuffed the ground with my sneaker. and a wisp of smoke came floating out through the gap. “They’ll be looking for you ’round here. Nan. just showing up like that. I swigged some orange juice from the carton and stuck some bread in the toaster. I gently tried the door. got to my feet. and picked my way across the floor. I found a couple and concentrated hard. They’re going to move me again. It moved beneath my fingers. Let’s have a day out. The bottle was bobbing about on its side. When I’d finished the milk. moving slowly to the left. but that wasn’t how I wanted to spend my last few hours of freedom before they picked me up. It matched my mood — I was calm. There’s a load of clean stuff in the hall. “Come in. You could cut the air with a knife around you.CHAPTER EIGHT I woke up on the floor. see where we both ended up. Terry. There’s no way he’d taken a shower. lighting another smoke.” “You’re not fine. I was free. I took my pint of milk down to the canal and drank it. and there she was in the kitchen: Val. She’s in a bit of trouble. I aimed them at the bottle.” Spider’s face registered agony and disgust. did that woman sleep there? “Alright. It’s always there in London. He slurped down his tea and bent to kiss Val. “Stuff ’em. then. You in trouble?” I nodded. “I’m in the shit. “There’s some tea in that pot. What more could they do to me than they were already planning? I checked my watch. “Jem’s come ’round to see you. Don’t nag. plopped into the canal. but seeing as you’re both suspended”—she winked one of those piercing hazel eyes —“you go and have a good day out. You could take a color photo and it would be the same as a black-and-white one. so instead. He shambled into the kitchen with some track pants and an old stained T-shirt on. I pushed the door open and went in. I had half a mind to follow it. She turned to me. everything was gray: the buildings. I felt unsure.” I went farther into the room. I wanted to say good-bye to my only friend.
you soft git. “No. clutching her bag to her body.” He flipped his arm toward the London Eye Ferris wheel. The queue was gawping at him. “It’s a fucking rip-off. Everything was up and running now. the corner of his damn bag catching my back. carrying a straw bag. “Bye. people out and about. she was backing away. Nan. “What?” I said. “No. What the hell…? I looked back across at them. saying things out of the corners of their mouths. probably hoping that we’d go away. In that split second it took for them to look across and look away.She looked at me. I thought. and in the loudest. and I caught the worry in her face as our eyes briefly met. but there was a warmth underneath. anyway. too. “I haven’t got much money.” I said. I was enjoying their reaction now. That was today. 12082010. like he was a hired clown — just there for their entertainment. man. No. and I thought. Sorry. He grabbed his hoodie on our way through the front room. I suppose when you weren’t used to him. madam. he was something to stare at: a six-foot-four black guy. I thought. I caught her number. anger fizzing through his body right down to his fingertips. “A little light shopping. they were getting pretty uncomfortable. “Don’t have to walk today. cocooned in his outrage. anyway. “Ta. have a look at them again. Her pupils were wide with fear. all over me. the traffic in full swing. Let’s go somewhere else. then spread one arm in front of me. Disrespectful.” I said. nothing more than that. Spider!” He looked a bit crestfallen. “’Scuse me. Sixty quid doesn’t go very far in London.” I said as I walked toward the lady. I thought. I must have made a mistake. .” The light went on: The old dear thought I was going to rob her. A couple of Japanese tourists. Bit more business to do. called out. But now me and Spider were two ants in a city of millions. it had felt like the city was mine. “I don’t want to go on the poxy thing.” And I started running toward the Tube.” “How much have you got. as if showing me the way.” and we were gone. exchanging worried glances. Sixteen quid to go up in that thing. Let’s get on with it. but Spider’s antics had become too much: They’d turned their backs on us. Her hands were holding her bag so tightly the knuckles were white.” I said as I squeezed through. Spider. and then he was there next to me. “Shut up. “I haven’t got much money. They’ll start chucking coins at him in a minute. “Come on. most stupid toff’s voice said. spreading his arms and twirling about. crisp winter days. I’m going to get a beat-down. I don’t want your money. just me. We’d spent most of our money on Oxford Street on stupid sunglasses and hats and Big Macs. having a nan like this. I needn’t have said anything. like a punch to my head. matching death dates — what were the odds? Then the actual numbers registered. trying to defuse the situation. But the whole of the day’s ours. that’s what it is. that sounds cool. Some of them were elbowing each other. though. taking a step backward. “Got to be back this evening. Spider didn’t even notice I’d gone — I could hear him cursing away to himself. then. if you wanted — just about. People were starting to stare at him. too.” she said quietly. 12082010. things could have been completely different. Weird. Is that to your liking?” People were starting to look. and stopped in my tracks. They were the same. Could get a taxi. God. My eyes ran along the line — yeah. The old lady took a deep breath. laughing. “Everything’s for sodding tourists in this town. It was turning into one of those bright. wearing matching blue parkas. This was unreal. I started walking toward the queue. and gloves. voice wavering ever so slightly. What did it mean? Sweat came pricking out through my skin. rooted to the spot. You lucky sod. I stared at her. If I’d had someone like her in my life. I couldn’t help it. What about us? What about normal people. I’d owned the peace and quiet. The line was pretty dense. The sun was out now.” But he was off on a rant now. I stood there. you could tell. shifting slowly a bit farther away from him. woolly hats. Spider?” “Sixty quid — all mine. She smiled thinly. I made for a slight gap between a young guy in a tracksuit with a rucksack on his back and an old lady with a thick tweed coat on. ain’t got sixteen quid for a poncey carnival ride?” Some of his audience were starting to look uneasy. Oxford Street?” “OK. He was shaking them up a bit. Earlier. thinking I’d go ’round to the other side. I started backing away in Spider’s direction. that’s not it. This is a treat for me — I’ve been saving my pension…. “Where do you wanna go?” “I dunno. and he swung ’round. not smiling. we can get the Tube. “Forget it. I needed to check this out. see you later. glanced in our direction.” He drew himself up to his full height. ranting in the street. staring at her.” He grinned. long legs easily beating me in our race to the ticket booth.” he said. I thought. like Jordan had been to me. I clocked their numbers and got a jolt like an electric shock.” I’d bumped into the guy in front of us.
The words running through my head didn’t sound real. “…take too much of this shit in this country. not OK. and nodded. We’ve got to get out of here. and it didn’t fool Spider. please. Everything was just as it had been. I lifted up my hand and slapped him hard in the face.“Hey. he looked as spooked as I was. amazed that I could still speak like a normal human being. a panic attack. sweat beading on his forehead. along the Embankment and over Hungerford Bridge. wrapped up in his own little world. This is not a problem. “It’s nothing.” I said. 12082010.” I tried to turn the conversation back to him. Something was going to happen to these people.” I said again. hair dark and damp around his scalp. We’re all treated like second-class citizens. I had a bad feeling there. “Still stinging a bit. There was no way to make him listen. but better. who was still cussing like a sailor. Today. then stopped and looked back where we’d come from. Even whiter than normal.” His stilted English caught my attention. he was running.” He ignored me. “What’s going on. “Everything is OK. you see. you are. “Is it sore?” He smiled ruefully. “I’m sorry I hit you. Weirdly. even to me — numbers. Here. we’ve got to go. he let go of my hand and sprinted ahead of me.” I put my hand up to his face and held it there for a couple of seconds. long legs striding out. looking over the Thames and the city just getting on with a normal day. listen to me.” Every second we stood there talking was a second closer to whatever was going to wipe these people out. and then we jogged together. ripping off people like this. Come on. no problems. We —” Without even thinking about it. I peered out from under my hood.” “Sorry. finally.” I echoed. It’s disgusting. there’s something wrong. And that’s where we were. I knew it sounded lame. I turned ’round and stumbled back to Spider. “Sure. And I do mean hard. death dates. man. . It sounded ridiculous. man.” he said. arms pumping. I suddenly felt that I’d made a fool of myself. Spider. You were just upsetting people. head down. My heart was hammering away in my chest. It doesn’t matter. “Bloody Mike Tyson’d have trouble with you.” he said. too. “Nah. that’s all. some twisted game my mind was playing on me. I grabbed his sleeve. a stupid fantasy. Spider. and then. at last. Look at you. I ain’t finished with this place. Someone needs to tell them. We slowed to a walk midway across the bridge. The next thing someone would’ve called the police.” He snorted and shook his head. set them straight. like it was going to burst through my rib cage. Getting into it. “What the fuck did you do that for?” “I need you to listen. His number. frozen in total shock. my real voice was screaming now — a piercing shriek of terror tearing through me. that’s not it. now. couldn’t it? But even as I said it. mate. get me out of here. leaning on the bridge. looking along the river. We’ve got to get out of here. disaster. Half a minute later.” It could have been true. Spider. Smack! He stopped midflow. sorry. everything’s OK. “Spider. Please. “Please. I’m OK now — well. “Don’t worry about it. You look like a ghost. What’s wrong with you?” Standing there.” “Yes. Jem? What was that all about?” “Nothing. willing me to agree with him. too.” I grabbed his other hand and pulled until. still smiling. We just need to get away. We…” He just wasn’t listening. “I’m going to talk to the main man. whoever’s in charge here.” Couldn’t he hear the fear in my voice? Couldn’t he feel my hand shaking on his arm? “I ain’t going nowhere. And perhaps that was all it was. “I didn’t mean nothing. he stopped to wait for me. We shouldn’t put up with it no more. I broke into a run. he started to move. kind of dragging him along.” “It’s OK. He had it. when we heard the bang and saw the London Eye blown to bits in front of us. hands in pockets. Inside me. I’d never have thought you could batter me like that. Then he put his hand up to his cheek.
it had to be better than watching London clean up its dead. “I’ve gotta sit down. my God!” and it was echoed from every mouth along the bridge — maybe a prayer from some people. “Let’s get out of here. Took me a while to realize I was lying down. I knew what was coming next. and then black.CHAPTER NINE You’ll have seen it on TV a hundred times. What the fuck’s going on.” I said. felt like you were going to fall through it. Still holding my eyes. He shook his head. All the strength had gone from me. I shivered. He grabbed his hoodie and held it out. “Come on. He stopped pacing and crouched down by me. and went to grab me. but my head was on a pillow. I felt numb. Spider sat next to me. muttering under his breath.” People were staring at us. as the dust settled and the sirens started wailing.” We were perhaps fifteen feet apart. and I always would be. so you know what we saw that day: a sudden explosion.” I leaned forward as a whooshing sound filled my ears. There was confusion there. Shut up!” He was close now. mate. I ducked away and started running. man?” he said. “Shut up. “No. “Whoa. then sat next to me. Jem. flipping his fingers. and slumped onto a broken bench. just the words you say when you’re in shock for most of us.” I said. The numbers were real — I was the girl who knew people’s futures. “How did you know that was going to happen. I couldn’t avoid it. “but not here. It didn’t take Spider long to catch me. hoping they weren’t real. I don’t want to do this on my own anymore. “You knew. I turned to continue across the bridge. man. you knew about that. I rammed my head forward. You knew about that. but also accusation.” Still leaning on the bridge. “Think so. “I didn’t. When I opened my eyes everything was the wrong way ’round. He was pacing up and down on the towpath. “OK. A couple of them quickly turned their heads to look at us. he spat out the words. that it was all some silly game in my head. but didn’t let go. “You alright. What’s going on?” I tried to wrestle away from him. The space inside my head turned red. man. Now I knew it was no game. “Let’s go home. We could hear screaming carrying across the water. and I could hear people shouting as he blundered through the crowd behind me. I thought. I couldn’t get away. He winced. a plume of smoke going up. Jem?” He stood up straight and started walking toward me. Spider and I said the same thing. His words were loud enough to reach me and several other people nearby. but he had both my arms now. Put this on. There were a lot of people on the bridge. One of the wooden slats was missing. Spider. others damaged and distorted in the blast. steady. rocking his head. I can’t do it on my own.” . Spider. “Nothing. I won’t shut up. I didn’t know nothing. but he was big and awkward. he looked ’round at me. “Hey. “Oh. Jem?” We were both breathing hard. “Let’s go.” I hissed. I was shivering. You knew about this. my legs were starting to go. you’re gonna tell me what’s going on. I kicked out and my foot slammed into his leg. the other end of a tunnel. I couldn’t stand it. Put your head between your knees or something.” I said weakly. still gripped in his vise. frowning. The bench dug into me where I was nearly falling through the gap. With his height and his strength and his smell he seemed to be all around me. I made it to the other side and ran blindly through the streets. and I had to weave my way between them.” “No. You knew about that. We stood watching for a minute or two. At last we were away from people. All around us people had stopped in their tracks and turned to face the Eye. but he’d seen me coming and just held me farther away. but Spider didn’t follow.” I said. debris flying everywhere.” Whatever was waiting for me at Karen’s. Can we cut down to the canal?” We walked up to the Edgware Road and soon found a way through to the back of the shops that led down to the canal. but soft: Spider’s hoodie. and he got hold of my arm and spun me ’round to face him. “You’ve gone a funny color.” I could hear Spider’s voice from a long way away. one Ferris wheel pod completely destroyed.” I said.” He helped me to sit up slowly. I stopped struggling and went limp in his arms. I tried to hit him. rank-smelling. with hardly any sound at all. “Here. “Nah. I’d started to doubt the numbers. but he was gripping hard. Spider was way faster than me.
It spilled out and ran down my right cheek. cuddling up underneath it. I was crying. stinging. Made me think of my mum putting a blanket ’round us both on the sofa when the flat was so cold. wiped my face with the back of my hand. “Yeah. Shit. when I realized he’d draped the hoodie over my shoulders.“Nah. Spider was the closest thing I’d ever had to a friend. I didn’t know what he was up to. Something was stabbing me in my eyes: pricking. “You gonna tell me now?” I looked hard at the ground in front of me. Could I trust him? I took a deep breath. I sniffed hard. Kind of wrapped me up.” I said. my skin. I shivered again and he reached ’round behind me. one of her good days. And I told him. . I’m alright. hot. I just don’t do that. I don’t cry.” Didn’t want that foul-smelling thing on my clothes. was about to tell him to where to go.
and we joined them. man. I thought. “I need to think about this. 12152010. We sat there while the sounds of London in chaos played out half a mile away. then. he breathed out. Finally. and kicked some more gravel into the water. Spider. freak you out. But she knew there was something different about you. trash all over the ground. like someone had taken a big bite out of it: one pod gone. You’re a pair of witches! Shit!” I sat up a bit. if I see their eyes. what was left of someone’s coat. wouldn’t it? Each day. tried to breathe more evenly. A couple of people had stopped outside the electronics shop’s window.CHAPTER TEN There was silence between us — not an empty thing. like someone else was talking. I’ll never tell no one. The camera lingered over some tattered blue material. The gravel crunched under our feet as we walked past the graffiti-daubed walls lining the path. up and down on the flat stones edging the canal. scratched his head. “My nan knows about you. It was probably the stillest he’d been since I’d met him. It’s all true. more insistently.” I nodded.” He sank down to the ground. of course.” “What if someone hadn’t got long to go? If they knew.” Except. but it’d be like living on Death Row. He suddenly slapped his forehead. I didn’t say anything. “All this time. doesn’t she? You and her. that bloody number was there again.” I swallowed hard. No one should have to live with that. “Let’s get out of here. holding his head. blank it out like I’d never seen it. I felt stunned — still reeling from what had happened and shocked that I’d finally told someone. this is way too weird. I’ve had to live with this for fifteen years. “That old bloke. and we set off down the canal path. scared almost. little brown wings going like the clappers. unaware that one day you’ll die. started chucking it at the ducks. Spider stood up. I just thought she talked a load of bollocks. oblivious.” “Ah. “Yeah. you’re the same. I suppose. the one that was run over. no way. Spider had got up. all the same.” “What d’you mean?” He was looking at me now. Never ask me that. He’d been sitting. living from day to day. “Yeah. It’s just not right. I dunno if I want to know or not. helicopters circling. was pacing around again. little brown things.” he said quietly.” I handed his hoodie back to him.” A siren started up from a street nearby.” He sounded confused. The London Eye wasn’t turning anymore.” “I know. aren’t you?” He shook his head. “You know mine. Spider. it was funny. that we all do. You’re freaking me out. car horns going. He was muttering under his breath — I couldn’t catch the words — just trying to get his head ’round what I’d said. Only it wasn’t trash. We all know we’re one day closer to the end when we wake up in the morning. like.” I said quickly. You’ve done my head in today. “Yeah. It’s not right. but here and there some had been tarted up. turned into posh offices or restaurants or wine bars. the ones near it twisted and wrecked. “It’s true. you saw his number. How easy to be a bird or an animal. My body and my head were all over the place. There was a bit missing. shiny islands in a sea of grime. He scooped up a handful of gravel. really. it was bits of people and people’s things. Must have hit one. And it did. There were a couple of ducks paddling along the canal. The sirens faded as we got farther away. I wanted to rip it out of my head. Just kid ourselves that it’s not happening. because they suddenly took off. a space full of thoughts and feelings. I knew what was coming next. unaware that you’re alive. and something flapping in the breeze: the frilly edge of a .” “Shit. “It would do your head in if I told you. There was silence again for a while. like everything had ground to a halt.” “You know mine. man. listening. didn’t you? That’s why you wanted to follow him. we cut up to the main road. I knew something was going to happen because their numbers were all the same. “I won’t tell you. bent forward. sirens wailing. “Do you see everyone’s numbers?” I looked back down at the ground. they’d have a chance to do stuff they’ve always wanted. A dozen TV screens. “No way. As our eyes met. “I couldn’t. crouching. and there was an odd quietness about the place. No way.” he said. man. leaning his elbows on his knees. When we got near the projects. Don’t ask me. It was so unreal. one step closer. I watched them making steady progress upstream. A lot of the buildings were derelict. He swiveled ’round. I hadn’t looked at Spider all this time — I’d kept my eyes on the ground as the words came out of me.” Those stupid tears weren’t far away again. unspoken words and emotions. a long breath through pursed lips.
I only protected him from getting hurt. Spider could have stayed where he was. I guess I do. the feeling that I could have made a difference. just like you said. “Come here. and I thought.” she said firmly. weren’t you?” she said. but not before I’d seen the tears glistening there. both in hoodies and jeans: one black. I fought to keep it down.” I said. Words slid along the bottom of each screen: TERRORIST ATTACK AT THE LONDON EYE…NUMBER OF DEAD AND INJURED UNKNOWN…POLICE WARN PUBLIC TO BE VIGILANT FOR MORE ATTACKS… We watched for ages.” Spider disentangled himself and sat back on his heels. that’s all. but the shock of the day and the relief of getting back home was loosening his tongue. she”—he hesitated. and Spider. we saw it. “We were just lucky. I knew it. and they’d all made for the Tube. “I knew it. and I were all quiet. I wished I could say. got them to shut the place down or something. You’ve got it wrong about me. I dunno. We were on Hungerford Bridge when it went off. that you? Ah!” She collapsed back into the chair. wiped my mouth.” I went to get up. “Yeah. but Jem. One way or another.” she said quietly. and you’ll think I’ve let you both down. “I dunno. “Shit. Thank you. “Spider?” “Yeah. “I just had a feeling. “You felt something? What was it?” I shook my head. Jem. Sit down.” The news was on a loop. We all looked at each other. “No. I got a tissue out of my pocket. Thank you for bringing him back to me. the same pictures over and over again. deafening me. but Spider wasn’t having it. I could feel stuff rising up inside me. I knew something was gonna happen. mate?” I coughed and spat. just waiting. He rubbed his arm across his face. I supposed.” Her eyes were boring into me as she sat there. Beside me. But there was this feeling crushing me. Nan.” She held both my hands in hers now. I was going off on a rant because we didn’t have enough money left to go on the ride. the guy with the rucksack. Spider’s was definitely the better option. I could’ve warned them. then wrapped his arms around her and folded his legs so he was crouching on the ground in front of her chair. and it had happened there?” He was right. Spider came to find me. but he means the world to me. “I knew there was something. Yeah. love.” but nowhere felt like home.” Her eyes were glistening. Val wasn’t on her normal perch. and they weren’t going to . she was in the front room with the big TV on. “You alright. Nan. He wouldn’t have died today. He’s a naughty boy. and soon he’ll go.” “Yeah. it was just between them. You alright?” Spider bent over to give her the normal peck on the cheek. She knew something was going on. Spider and I were up to our necks in it now. I could never tell them what was coming up for Spider. “It’s alright.” She was still holding my hands. “You wanna come to mine?” Spider asked. “I’ve been fretting all afternoon since the news came on. Val looked ’round at me. We saw it. You kept my boy safe. the other clutched his head into her. “I knew people were going to die. So I just sat there.” I mumbled. Spider kept saying. Thank you. “I’m so glad to see you both. Whatever trouble I’d been in yesterday fell away. “She’s like you. You saved Terry for me. feeling that I shouldn’t be seeing this. a gesture of comfort. But we’d both had run-ins with the police before. son.” One hand rested on his back. But I couldn’t say any of this. “You were there.” I sat next to her and she took my hand. She saved me. very tall. like she’d been holding her breath. I felt my stomach lurch.” “So you saved him. “You’re here for a reason. trying to get my mouth clean. As I stood there. Val. it wasn’t luck. I can’t save him.” I wanted to go somewhere safe. and Val held on to my hand with one of her hands and reached out to hold Spider’s with the other. I want to. Nan. but what if they’d shut it. the old lady. but in the end I had to find an alleyway and get rid of it: the sour contents of my stomach spilling out of me onto the ground. today was their day: the Japanese couple. “I’m going to head home. I suddenly remembered Sue and the police — God knows who would be waiting for me back at Karen’s. looked deep into my eyes.” I flashed him a warning look. shaking them gently up and down. “Terry. My heart was beating like mad. shredded in the blast. “We were there just before.” I hovered in the doorway. “I knew you had a gift. it didn’t matter.” “I could’ve done something. but I can’t. I knew something bad was going to happen. the blood pumping through me. man. They’ve got nothing on you. Nan. hugging her. “You’ve done nothing. You look done in. and he wouldn’t have died today. She half got up when she saw us coming through the door.straw bag. After a minute or so. nicotine-stained fingers buried in his springy hair. looked at me quickly — “she said we should come away.” I didn’t know what to say. You’re safe now. “Thank you. one shorter and white. as the reporter on the TV broke the news that police were putting out an urgent call to trace two youths seen running away just moments before the explosion. but Val tightened her grip on my hands. Jesus Christ. We shambled back to Carlton Villas and let ourselves in. He held on tight.” Val made a little sighing noise.
were they? Spider looked at me over the top of his nan’s head. .swallow any stories about second sight. We couldn’t stick around waiting to be picked up. It was time to run. and I knew what he was thinking.
It had all gone. I put them on and faced the mirror. dumped the clothes on the side of the bath. with long. “if you are going. now that I’d started. and then when I get back. ended up looking absolutely brilliant. if you ask me. I’ve got some old clippers somewhere.” “But—” I started to object. I took them out and started hacking at my hair. skinny girl. what was still happening. they were gross. “I’m not going to stop you. looking like this. anyway.” Eventually she stood back and admired her work. Except that I looked seriously bad. aren’t we? You get a bit of food together while I’m out. Was there any way to stick it back? Val knocked on the door. “Look. take what you want. coming into the room with an armful of clothes. wincing as the clippers buzzed in my ear. I’ve got to go out for a bit. They’d been heavy enough about the knife — this was something completely different. mousy hair. Let me have a look in my room. do a bit of business. it went on for hours and she cried her eyes out at the end. I can’t do it if you move about. and I was trying to catch up. I didn’t look in the mirror again until I’d gone all the way ’round. I looked bad. Val had been watching us and hadn’t said a word. “You’d be alright here. Halfway through. wasn’t I? The filth who’d picked me up the other day would soon realize it was me they were looking for. “and a coat.” I went through to the kitchen and started opening cupboard doors randomly. Jem. making for the door. Karen had taken a couple of me with the twins when I’d first got there. “Here. don’t worry.” she said. I looked at the bundles of hair lying on the floor with a sick feeling in my stomach. She just cut it. Now she got up from the chair. They would be looking for a small. “Sit still. “I think it’s going to have to all come off. but — obviously — they all stank to high heaven of smoke and.” He put a jacket on over his hoodie and crammed a beanie over his unruly hair. the nurse. Just like me. The scissors were crap. What the hell had I done? It was no good. trying to get my head around what had happened. to be honest. and I could only cut through if I pulled the strands really tight. It’s dropping cold at night now. It’s not that bad. so we were OK size-wise. but what if they pick you up now?” “I’ll be fine. “What you making that face for? Not good enough for you?” She’d caught me.” she said quickly.” He formed a fist and held it out to me. hold everything together. She’s small. After a while. like I said. There was hardly anything there — a few cans of peas. “try some of these. hemorrhoid cream.” she rummaged vigorously in the heap and pulled out a big pink thing with a huge roll neck. trying to undo the damage. It was like things were slipping and sliding around me. Karen made me watch it at her house once. but Spider wasn’t having it. “There. you know. Without thinking twice. love. wouldn’t they? Even a photo. like me. “It’s alright. Jem.” I stumbled up and found the bathroom. cut her hair off. handing them to me. which I was pretty sure she would. let alone run away. “We’re gonna need money.” Val said. some beans.CHAPTER ELEVEN “Listen. or something.” I put my hand up to my head. but we both knew she wasn’t fooling anyone. just breathing. Look. Let me look under the sink. It was tragic. But I was going to have to do something. Among the painkillers. Have you ever seen that film The English Patient? Bloody boring. I looked in the mirror. “Sweet Jesus!” Yeah. though. like a model.” She sat me on one of the stools in the middle of the kitchen. and there she was. a box of instant mashed potatoes. I was left with handfuls of hair. one of the characters. you alright?” I slid the bolt back and opened the door. You go through cupboards in the kitchen. even if Karen didn’t ring them up. “There. and slid the bolt across to lock the door. I opened the cabinet on the bathroom wall above the sink. I felt like a jarhead. it was as bad as I thought it was. All this time. I let them fall to the floor. don’t worry. Anyway. You could feel the shape of my .” He sloped out the front door. yeah?” “OK. I’ll be back soon. and I did the same. thinking that I’d rather die than wear them. I looked like me in someone’s grandma’s clothes. This sweater. As I snipped away. Here. God.” she said. Our knuckles touched. I used the toilet.” She threw a mint-green padded parka and some gloves in my direction. They’ve got nothing on you. and then sat there for ages. I’d have to see it through. You’ll have to do what you think best. and you’re going to need something warm. There was no way I could even go out of the house. we’ll get going. “Did you find the chocolate biscuits? I’ve got a box of chocolate biscuits somewhere. silly cow. Safe. I stood up and wriggled out of my hoodie. It was horrific.” I shrugged. “Safe. ran her fingers through it. They’d have a description then. “You alright in there? Jem. you’ll need a couple of T-shirts.” I took them back into the sitting room and sorted through. You didn’t do nothing. I took out a packet of crackers. I’d have to try Val’s things. “I’ll…I’ll try them upstairs. love. you’ll need some different clothes. that’s better. and indigestion tablets were some nail scissors.
he had time to think about her.” “I don’t care. clicked open the trunk. I looked about ten. just watching. I ran my hands through. We stood around awkwardly for a minute. yeah?” “Yeah. Jem. I scowled. “Here.” “Where you going.” I wanted to tell Spider to stop the car there and then. eyebrows.” he was laughing. but you’ll ring me. quick. Val fumbled in her pocket and brought out a fiver. I wanted to get out and run.” She let go of my arm and we walked into the hall.skull.” I went back up to the bathroom. and just keep running until I had a heart attack or someone caught me and none of it was in my hands anymore. I tried not to think that this was probably the last time they’d see each other.” Val had put some stuff together in a bag: food.” He smiled and closed her hand around it. son?” Val asked. could I? “Keep him safe. He might be small. “What you gonna live on?” Even in such a hurry. . “I think it’s clear.” We got in the car. “Get off!” I wasn’t public property. Jem.” Those hazel eyes looked deep into mine. Jem. “What the…? Is this yours?” I stuttered. I was used to seeing my face curtained by my hair. I swear it did. hand half-raised. I’ll try. “Nah. time to go. “Do you know something? Do you know something about Terry?” I gasped. “Fucking hell. Val caught my arm.” She shoved it into his pocket. half-hidden. I was fierce. She held him close. Take it. “Stick the radio on. See you soon. a ten-year-old boy. I’ve only been gone half an hour. He jumped back.” she murmured. “Listen. “Oh. mouth. “You look way cool!” He reached out and touched my hair. “take this. Find some music. The girl in the mirror stared back at me. and straight off she dug her fingernails into my arm. but you wouldn’t mess with him.” He was still laughing. Sooner the better. shook my head. I looked behind.” “Alright. a sleeping bag. “I’ll be in touch. Get in. then Spider coughed. “Just do your best.” I lied. “Come on. Deep down inside I knew there was nothing I could do to keep Spider safe — his time was coming. then he sobered up. It’s all I’ve got. jawline. I want you to have it. examining me from every angle. don’t worry. her pupils widening in alarm. Nan. what’ve you done?” He walked around me. you’ve still got a good inch. You have it. Christ.” she said. and chucked in the bags. “OK. I got money. and Spider reached beneath the steering wheel with both hands and rummaged around until the car spluttered into life. Spider was back. Go and look.” His voice broke into my thoughts. ears. and you could see the jaw muscles through the side of my face. Let’s go!” He darted out to a red car parked halfway on the sidewalk. love. Terry. and the person in the mirror scowled back. “OK. I’ll be fine. nose. “Oh. Nan…. When I walked into the front room. but this was a pretty powerful look. OK. I couldn’t promise anything. “It is now. Her eyes closed as she held him one last time. holding both his hands up in defense. This is mine. a blanket. Spider had opened the door a crack and was peering out. stood outside the door for a bit while I got up the courage to look. Jem. “Take good care of him. my God. twitching like mad. strong cheekbones.” He bent to hug her again. Get some chips or something. Do you know something?” I pressed my lips together. As we drove off. starting to enjoy the feel of the newly cut ends. “Don’t worry.” He was looking up and down the road. we need to get going. “No. but now my features were laid bare — eyes. I swallowed hard. Val was standing on the pavement. and put them in a shopping bag Val had found for me. alright. I get my Disability money tomorrow. His jaw literally dropped. and it was days rather than weeks now. It might feel like my protective layer had been stripped away. I guessed I could live with it. looking down at the carpet.” He reached down and hugged his nan.” “Cheers. Nan.” he said.” I looked away. He looked up and grinned. Spider shuffled his feet. I went upstairs to fetch my “real” clothes. she was starting to hurt me. son. trying to give it to Spider. Her voice echoed in my head: “Do your best. “Look at me. but didn’t say anything. “Not too short. She was a stranger. “It’s better if you don’t know. won’t you? Let me know you’re OK?” “Yeah. Intense eyes. Spider picked up the bags and moved toward the front door.
my God. then laughed like a maniac. it was addressed to Mr. P. yeah. “Oh. He was fizzing with energy. he’d have had the window down now. We just need to keep moving ‘til we find somewhere we can lie low for a bit. London. “What you doing?” “Just checking we’re not being followed. my life had finally begun. eh?” “You been up the school?” “Yeah. I was about to chuck it on the floor when something caught my eye. “Out west. “I don’t think it’s worth trying to get out of the country. I’d just let Spider take charge — he seemed to know what he was doing. McNulty. loving the buzz of it all — running away. then?” “Oh. And just for a moment. Head for Bristol and keep going. “Yeah. It seemed like.I looked across at him. Neat.” It dawned on me: His BEST DAY EVER. too — receipts. and I was enjoying the ride. I was in a real-life adventure. Didn’t take long — you might as well not lock an Astra. Guess we should avoid the motorways — all those cop cars and security cameras. so I opened the glove compartment. Jem. I flicked through the radio stations. At the top. 24 Crescent Drive.” I was impressed — he had thought about it. just sneaked in. “Couldn’t resist. anyway?” I hadn’t questioned this before. I thought we’d head west — might end up at the seaside. If he’d been a dog. I might buy a map book when we stop for gas. Dire Straits. I forgot the bomb.” He put his hand up to his jacket. Give us a bit longer before we ditch it and get the next one. just a boring bill. . There was all sorts of other crap in there. We could aim for there. He kept glancing up into the rearview mirror. Not that I can read a map. I got plenty of money. They’ll be watching all the ports. the car swerved a bit. Finsbury Park. and the police. J.” “Yeah. Elton John. after waiting for fifteen years. There was a pretty tragic selection: the Bee Gees. I fished out one bit of paper. we’re on our way!” And he let out a ridiculous whooping noise. Spider. looking for CDs. the wheels. some papers. There’s all sorts…” “Where are we heading. anyway. This is the Nutter’s car! Have you completely lost it?” His eyes were shining. too. “Weston-something-or-other?” He smiled. Every time he did it. there’s unmarked cars. with his head out and his ears flapping in the breeze. They were all in last period.” “Where the hell is it?” I admit it.” “He’ll have reported it stolen by now. “We got the cash. It was all rubbish. and the fact that I was in a stolen car with a guy whose pockets were full of dodgy money. my knowledge of geography is nil.” “We’d hear the sirens. an old hairbrush. but how difficult can it be?” “You got some money. wouldn’t we?” “It’s not just jam sandwiches. driving through London. They’ll all be looking for it. I thought about that.
my God…. just keep going. People on their way back from work. We joined the flow. mate!” Spider responded. “I don’t believe you…you’re a head case! We’ve just driven through one of the busiest cities in the world. or we’ll crash!” Spider was driving wildly. Eventually.” “Won’t help me.” Spider turned off onto a side road and pulled over. nicked cars and all that…?” “I have. The other bloke was going mad. Spider. something was right on top of us in the outside lane. back to their two-point-four kids in the suburbs. Winding me up. and you’ve only driven a car once before.” “I don’t think the signs help much. I know. He switched off the engine and stretched out as far as he could in his seat. then rubbed his face with his hands and exhaled hard through his fingers. haven’t you?” “Sure I have. “All I can see is lights. “Just leave it. felt like we’d never get off. find somewhere quieter. but I was always the starter. We went up on a kind of ramp. “Where are we?” “I dunno. dangerous. but then we didn’t know what to do.CHAPTER TWELVE The road out of London was like something out of a science fiction film. I need a break. They never let me drive. man. God. We were part of a stream of cars spewing out of the city. There’ll be more signs soon. but he was a complete wanker. I haven’t got a clue about maps. Jem? Did anyone else go all the way ’round like us?” “How would I know?” “You need to look in the mirrors! It’s not frigging brain surgery!” There was sweat beading on his forehead. and the brakes squealed as Spider tried to slow down to take the bend as it curved ’round. It was all concrete and glass and sky. I was living out a dream: Spider and I were movie stars. and I breathed a sigh of relief. “you have driven before.” I said slowly. where do we go?” We did the full circuit. keep your eyes on the road. We carried on. The car in the outside lane drew level with us. relief teetering on the edge of hysteria. and center. We need a map. “I had a go in Spencer’s car down by the warehouses. right. before plunging down one exit with car horns going off at us left. his eyes still closed. still going nuts. For God’s sake. the driver making gestures and shouting as he eyeballed Spider. None of their stories could be anything like ours. “Shut up!” I yelled. there’s so much to think about.” “I think we should get off this road. As I watched the taillights stretching out ahead. drove through blocks of space-age office buildings fifty feet up in the air. and closed his eyes. Before long there was a sign showing an exit coming up. but at least he had both hands on the wheel now. I thought about how each of those cars contained someone with their own story. too cool to be true. man. Don’t look at him. “Up yours. We hurtled ’round. could they? Two kids on the run from the police in a stolen car. we’ll just have to learn. looking at the exit signs: “Hounslow…Slough…Harrow…Christ.” “Yeah. Spider pulled out to overtake a van. the traffic nose to tail. They’re all the same! How the fuck would I know if we’re being followed?” He wiped his hand over his forehead and into his hair. put his head back. Whoa.” He wiped more sweat away from his forehead with his sleeve. Just calm down. we’ll take the next exit. his steering completely random. Jem. it was exciting. the other guy accelerated away.” “But I thought you’d done this tons of times. but we were going too fast to see what it said.” I looked at him sharply.” I found myself laughing. glad to be heading away from the bomb and the mayhem. everything’s coming at you from all sides. “We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.” “Yeah. “Shit! That’s hard. but he was being a tit.” he said.” “Well. “Shit!” Spider yanked the wheel and we veered back over. Out of nowhere there was a blaring horn. Oh. “Did anyone follow us.” He was still agitated.” “Driving?” “Yeah. “Spider. A sign flashed up showing a traffic circle ahead. I knew he was stressed. . We moved over into the slip road.
anyway. Spider’s face brightened up. You were awesome. helpless for a while. went ’round to the trunk.” “It’s Baz’s money? You robbed Baz? Oh. We’ve got to do this.” “Slim pickings. How many people in my life saw anything more than an odd. let’s have a look in the bag your nan got ready. Jem. those words tickled him and he started laughing flat out. my God. He really meant it — he’d go on without me. didn’t know what to say. “What have you done. a dense wedge of notes. That’s why I can’t go back. “You alright?” I didn’t answer. Jem. Reality was seeping in. Jem. He was alright. but you can.” He grinned and nodded. Wouldn’t mind having a look at Weston-Super-Wotsit. the next few weeks.” I said. didn’t I?” I paused for breath.” I said. Spider.” “What do you mean.” Spider shook his head. But it’s not them.” I said. “Maybe we should go back. find a petrol station and get some proper food. and he was staring right at me. Karen? I opened my eyes. “What have you done. Spider. Spider?” I asked quietly. There was a pack of cigarettes. Start again.” He looked so offended. It was silent in the car. chocolate biscuits. “I don’t think this would help right now. Anything else to drink in there?” I rummaged about. and something heavy at the bottom. “Not if they don’t find me. like you’d flick through a book. at least. Well. “No. restless. I reached farther in and put my hand around the neck of a bottle. we’d laughed it away. There really was no going back. it was like all the energy had gone out of us. everyone would be looking for us.” For some reason. they’ll kill you!” He was back to chewing the edge of his finger. Here. crazy. I didn’t even really know what he was going on about. They’ll question us about earlier on. I fished into it. Look. “Nah. isn’t it. When we stopped. It was pretty pitiful — crackers. It was infectious. robbed a bank?” He chewed on a hangnail. yeah. “They might be easier on us if we went back and gave ourselves up. I’m not. You were awesome. I put my hand in and pulled them out. We sat there like a pair of idiots. it’ll be bad for a bit. But what did I have to go back to? The police. we’d got nothing useful with us. Honest. Doubts about the whole thing were crowding in on me.” “I am thirsty. “Let’s carry on down this road.” I let his words sink in. you can’t? Alright.” .” Spider said. “let’s do it. if you like. make a plan. buy a map. and we’ve taken the car now. but no can opener. but I started laughing. a big one. We didn’t know where we were going. Jem.” I closed my eyes. and snorted with laughter.” “OK. reckless.” He got out. the foster system. It’s you and me now. I didn’t want to be the one to say it. looked at me without answering. You could go back. He looked down. We’ve got to find somewhere new. I felt a hand on my shoulder. “I’m not laughing at you. I can’t go back. but what’s the worst they can do? Lock us up?” “No. “No way. “You did get us here. “What’s this?” “Have a look.” I held the wad in one hand and flicked through the other end with my thumb. There must have been hundreds of used fivers and tenners. “I could drop you off somewhere. I drew it out. fetched the bag. they’ve been waiting for an excuse. like when you drink something really cold and can feel it making its way down your throat and inside you. I had honestly never seen or held so much money in my life. I put a comforting hand on his arm. really looking at me. quiet little kid in a hoodie? How many people had really bothered with me? Spider was different: He was funny. “That’s our future. but I couldn’t help myself.” And he reached into his jacket pocket and drew out a brown envelope.He opened his eyes now. Thousands of pounds. and handed it to me. “I didn’t make my last drop-off. when you haven’t got nothing? It’s just funny. too.” I unfolded the end and peered in. ran his hands through his hair. There were bills inside. though. I can’t.” I said. “What?” “It’s just something you say. I’ll stay for the ride. some cans. folded over. “What? What you laughing at? I got us here. “It’s OK. man. Jem. “I ain’t never going back. not the police — though they will lock me up this time. and slung it onto my lap. Have a snack. putting the vodka back in the bag.
to grab one of us. and took care of business.” I said. we’ve got to get out of here. bits of blue parka. Spider got out and took a leak. Enough to keep us going for a few days. Every pig in the country’s going to be looking for it.” So much for old-fashioned gallantry.” “Yeah. I thought. I felt like there was a big neon sign over my head. then passed a blanket over to me. I felt a twinge of triumph when I spotted Bristol. The news finished and the music came back on as we reached the register. I know. It was agony. We won’t last five minutes. then found London. trying to see a pattern in the web of lines on the map. Look. This is life or death. We inched forward. too. When I finally figured out where we were on the map. Why don’t we find somewhere really quiet and get some kip. After about ten minutes. Spider paid in cash and we ducked out. I started to protest. and chewing at his lip. bit more space for you. stay cool. and killed the lights. you look at the map.” And so. I held my finger there. and… “You awake. The darkness was so dense.” His long limbs only just fit into the front. see if you can work out where we are. we found our way out of the city. just the wretched blackness of a country lane. unnatural. let’s go. I’m done in. My brain won’t switch off. There were loads of roads between the two.We did a U-turn in our side road and joined the main drag again. climb in the back and lie down. but there was no relief. turning ’round when we’d gone wrong. I need you to do this. “OK. In Val’s stupid mint parka.” I flicked through the pages until I found a big map of the south of England. There could be a bloody great bloke with a knife just a few feet from the car. You won’t notice the difference when you’ve got your eyes shut. I concentrated hard. This is too weird. In Basingstoke. yanked open the doors.” Spider said through a mouthful of food. As we made for the door. with my new short hair.” “Where are you going?” “Nowhere — I’ll kip here. some sandwiches. If it’s light.” I could hear him shifting around. but I can’t sleep. The guy behind the counter had the radio on. He leaned over and rummaged behind the seat. Let’s find somewhere with some streetlights. but all I could see were the images from the TV: the space where the pod used to be on the Eye. I’ll be able to tell when there’s a sign. “I can tip the seat back. the other shorter and slightly built. You get in the back. I could see the queue again. moving it along as we traveled. Spider found the catch to unlock the cap to the tank. and looked to the left. Here. It was pitch-black. I was waiting for someone to say something. there could be anything out there. Spider?” “Yeah.” We drove around until we found a country lane. I’m alright here. Spider was already starting the engine. “I’m so knackered. grotesquely distorted. The music cut to a news report.” He plonked a big map book on my lap. “I guess we should ditch this car. it’s like I’m wired. we pulled off the main road and found a quiet street. but he cut in. an arrow pointing down: HERE THEY ARE. You’ll be alright there. I wrapped it ’round my shoulders and wriggled down. they’d remember two kids loaded down with stuff. Before I got back in the car. We both went into the shop. The guy didn’t even look at us. I felt a twinge of regret. It’s too bloody dark. candy bars. Spider. The queue was achingly slow. then swap cars early in the morning. nothing to focus on. I spotted a camera high up in the corner. It’s too hot. checking in the sideview mirror for cars behind. “Jem. without streetlights. those faces looking at me. little bits of potato chips spraying all around him. I thought. “I don’t like this. we just needed to find one of them. I took off the vile coat and chucked it on the backseat. “Just drive until we find a sign. trying to make myself comfortable. haltingly. just asked for the pump number and scanned the stuff. man. He agreed straightaway and got out of the driver’s door and into the back. “London is reeling after a massive blast ripped apart the London Eye…seven dead and many more injured…police are looking for two youths: one black and very tall. chips. but I fought it. “I kind of like it. Every part of me wanted to dump the stuff and take off. and we wouldn’t see him until he loomed up to the windows.” “No. I closed my eyes. turned off the engine. “No. but they’ll pick us up tonight or tomorrow unless we switch. He was looking down. and then we had a sort of picnic in the car: sandwiches. I knew Spider had heard it.” . They’ve got a picture of me now. All the time I was listening out for sirens.” My skin was prickling all over. We pulled into a sort of rest stop. That’s it. Shit. an unblinking eye. Just for a second I looked straight at it. pressed his hands and face against the glass. a shredded straw bag. we found a gas station and drew up beside one of the self-service pumps. and it looked back at me. People were looking at us a bit funny. people will see. potato chips. Coke. and I used the toilet while Spider gathered armfuls of stuff — Coke. his head was brushing the ceiling. shuffling from foot to foot. I opened my eyes. Spider. Stay cool. After a bit of messing about. stopping every now and then to check.
” I felt his hand reach ’round the side of my seat. Jem. soothing me without words. out and about. He was loving this. Respect. I got my hand out of the blanket and intertwined my fingers with his. and we headed back to the suburbs of the sleeping town. We’ll find some nice wheels and get some miles behind us before everyone wakes up. He gently stroked the base of my thumb with his. He’s the same as us. he pulled up and nodded toward the other side of the road. checking things out. Jem. I don’t like it here. Mister Fox. . Get all the stuff in the bags. A thief. and no noise. “Glad I didn’t hit him. Despite it being God knows what time. I guess I must have nodded off.” We carried on. “Time to go. and Spider was getting into the driver’s seat. where a big old station wagon was parked. silvery light was filling the car through fogged-up windows. because the next thing I knew a gray. I was flung forward as he suddenly slammed on the brakes. nice and early. patting my arm. After a bit. bony index finger up to his mouth and winked. A fox was crossing the road in front of us. Spider smiled as it melted away into a hedge. Let’s do this quickly. “That’s the one. his eyes flicking along the rows of cars. soon finding some quiet suburban streets full of parked cars. Jem. a big bugger.“I’m scared.” He turned the car around. His hand felt like it was twice the size of mine — long fingers and knobbly knuckles.” He held his long. Spider was wide-awake.
have you been camping before?” “Nah. trying not to make too much noise as I shut the door. Some of the houses had straw on the roofs. blankets and everything.” I reached into the glove compartment and pulled out the bill to McNulty.” “The best thing would be to find somewhere to hide out. It was about as friendly as the surface of Mars: no shops. It gave a satisfying click.” I looked gloomily out the window at the alien patchwork of fields and hedges. nice and quiet. and got out of the car. I’ll just suss it out. leave London alone. but I switched the radio on anyway. dull green wasteland. muddy. In the smallest print I could manage. No wheel lock or nothing.” one of the stories my mum read me. I wrote in the corner of the letter: The end—12252023.” “No. “Why can’t we just stay in the car? Park it out of the way?” “Yeah. and got in quickly. two of them in critical condition.” “They probably wouldn’t say everything they know. and soon the engine sparked into life and we were off.” Even at half-six there were plenty of cars around. Jem. no people. Don’t say nothing about the car.” We drove on. I went ’round. rolling hills. Listen. camp out somewhere in the woods. I hadn’t been asleep. A parting gift to the cruel bastard. “The death toll from the London bombing has risen to eleven overnight. gathered up my stuff. maybe you’re right. easing through the sleepy streets. is it? Karen will have reported me missing. see what’s happening. Spider heaved a sigh of relief. living off the land. What a complete nightmare. Wherever there are people around. but how difficult can it be? We just need enough food and water. It took us ages to get out of Basingstoke. no life. If we don’t freeze to death.” “We’ll be in the bloody hospital ourselves by tomorrow night if we’re picking stuff and eating it. London was a dump. and the big bad wolf blowing it down.” Spider said. Police are still appealing for two youths seen running from the scene minutes before the explosion to come forward. doesn’t he. Get all the stuff together. you retard. I think we should drive for another half hour or something and then park up out of sight until it gets dark. not like this endless.CHAPTER THIRTEEN “Stay here.” “Just a minute. Catching stuff. He did a quick tour ’round the station wagon and came back. We drove ’round in bloody circles for about twenty minutes. that’s fine. past bleak. kind of wanted the outside world to stay outside. “What you thinking about?” I came to with a start. farms here and there. I didn’t want to know. just thinking sodeep I wasn’t there for a while. until I spotted a sign for Andover — I’d seen on the map that that was one of the next towns west. Spider was already at the driver’s door of the new one. “Try the radio. like they’d designed the roads to keep you trapped there forever.” My heart sank. little pigs like me and Spider don’t stand a chance. . “I’m not going commando. “Yeah. The wolf ends up boiled in a pot. would they? It’s not going to take long. We can do that. I scrabbled about for a pen and found an old pencil stub. for it just to be me and Spider in a car. and are set to release security camera photos at a press conference later this morning. It reminded me of “The Three Little Pigs. Come on!” I dropped the letter onto the floor. chucked all the stuff onto the backseat. no houses. There was nothing to them. We’ll be poisoned. yeah?” I laughed.” Spider swung out of the car and darted across the road. and some blankets. and he got in and opened the passenger door. but you couldn’t really say they were places.” “Switch it off. eating berries. It doesn’t take long to figure out that in real life the wolf always comes out on top. “Reckon they should bomb bloody Basingstoke. traveling. though. We’ll be fine — commandos. little clusters of houses and the odd shop sprang up — they had names. We’re much less likely to get spotted in the dark. with twenty-six of the injured still hospitalized. does it? P’raps they haven’t sussed it’s us yet. find somewhere sheltered. Every now and again. and pressed a few buttons randomly until I found some news. Spider was doing his thing under the steering column. “We’ve got to go before the neighbors’ curtains start twitching. True enough. As we headed away. like it was the bloody Dark Ages or something. with the three little pigs safe in their brick house? I don’t know why they tell children all these lies. but at least it was some sort of civilization. Forensic experts are now engaged in a painstaking search of the site. and they’ve got the security camera footage…. “What the hell are you doing?” Spider hissed at me. fiddling at the lock with some sort of tool. Stupid little pig building its house out of straw. it’s danger for us. sifting the debris for evidence of the perpetrators and for clues confirming the identity of the dead. What the hell did either of us know about camping out? Two kids from London? “Spider.
And my feet and legs were all over the place. we started up the lane. We weren’t like hikers with backpacks and walking boots. I frantically flicked through the map book. good thinking. and Spider draped a blanket ’round his shoulders. He cursed and swung into the next side road. then. Why?” “What’s he doing?” “He’s smoking a cigarette and he’s talking into a little radio thing.” “But what if he is? What do we do?” “We need to dump this car. but you know. when someone’s staring at one thing but looking out of the corner of their eye at something else? Instinctively. man. Spider. find somewhere to kip down.” He started the engine and shifted easily through the gears as he accelerated away and back onto the main road — he was getting the hang of driving. praying we wouldn’t meet something coming the other way. don’t be daft. just ordinary kids with plastic bags. Where to? How…?” “We’ll just take our stuff. “No. I was holding on to the door with one hand and the dashboard with the other. “What. A bloke appeared from the side and walked ’round the back of the truck. He’s calling the police. That truck just now. The plastic cut into my hands. My heart sank. He was pretending he wasn’t.” “You seen some?” He craned behind quickly. Keep your eyes on the road! You’ll kill us both. The bags were a bloody nuisance. “He’s spotted us. too. The track was so uneven. Did you see?” “Nah. I was eaten up with fear — they were closing in on us. “Spider. He slowed down and eventually pulled up at a place where a little lane. like you said. One of them kept bumping my leg. steaming along a narrow lane. a cruel.” Another couple of minutes and another truck approached. throwing the car into a steep swerve. These truck drivers talk to each other all the time. not wide enough for a car. but it was like two sides of the same coin. . I tried turning it ’round. When you looked.” “Nah. The driver definitely clocked us. no matter what I did. and was talking as he passed us. we were completely stuffed. a green one. bump. following us. get the stuff together. go up this track. get another one. I guess I was. storybook ones. He was excited. Anyway.” My skin was pricking all over. He had a headset on. and I’ll get some more wheels as soon as I can. nothing worked. and a touch of the charity shop about us. we’ve gotta get out. They’d be able to trace our every movement. and as I looked into the cab. I suppose. too. there were trucks everywhere — one a couple of vehicles ahead of us.” Again. and. saying FOOTPATH.” There was a signpost with a picnic table on it. well hidden. Nick something from a farm.” We bundled everything we could into some plastic bags. met our road.” “No way. “Can you see him?” Spider picked a bit of biscuit out of his teeth. don’t you. well. They’re on to us. There was a signpost. not that sort of pig — real ones. God knows what we looked like — a pair of dossers. anyway. We turned off the road and found a big rest stop. I could see he was looking at us. easier than carrying it. that driver?” “Yeah. and we pulled up behind it and both had a swig of Coke and some chocolate biscuits. bump. He stopped to light a cigarette. Come on. Spider saw it. nagging pain. “Yeah. and tore out the pages showing where we were now and all the places between us and Weston.“Pigs.” “Watch the next one. There was a tractor trailer parked there. every minute or so. we’re going to have to leg it. then checked that the fastenings on his rig were done up. he looked at me. can you see him in his cab?” “Just in his sideview mirror. I put the coat on. I looked behind. Bump. never mind…. Let’s get out of here. you could tell Spider was buzzing with adrenaline. I’m keeping my eyes on the road. All the while. oh. We couldn’t get everything in the bags. walk a few miles. If the first driver had spotted us and had told all his mates. thatta girl. enjoying the adventure. A truck was heading toward us. with a backward glance to the car. swapping hands. the driver met my eyes — just for a moment — then looked away. one coming the other way. I slouched down in my seat as I watched him walk ’round to the cab door and haul himself up. the tractor trailer was lumbering along. Way back. “Gather up the stuff.
feel my body relaxing. screeching and grunting. he got his arms and legs ’round me. you’d still be able to see the car. and we stood there for a bit. and look at my hands!” I held them up toward him. it was just in his own head. “Don’t you ever laugh at me! Don’t you ever…!” Instead of backing away or hitting back. “Look. I could feel it going. and then my ankle would go again. and he sort of sapped the fury out of me. “You alright now?” he said after a while. oblivious. and squeezed.” “Yeah.” There was light dancing in his eyes. I can carry my own bags. just breathing. about six feet up. Me. Then I picked up one of the bags with both hands and flung it. I stopped and dropped both bags. a broad grin on his face. It sailed gracefully through the air and lodged in the top of a hedge.” I couldn’t let him do that — I mean. If you went back to that bend. “What’s up?” “I can’t go on any farther. my face pressed into the smelly place under his arms. You can do this. “Let’s have a bit of chocolate and press on. They’ve got pavement and tarmac there. It was like he was listening to music. Can we stop for a rest?” He looked at his watch. my legs had nowhere to go. you divvy. he realized I wasn’t following and turned ’round. bump. After a few seconds. And all the time. man. Spider lurched over to me and put his hand over my mouth. At. civilization. “We’ve been walking for six minutes. “I can’t do it! I don’t like walking!” “We walk miles in London. up the track. “No. right. He was laughing at me. I was held in close. I started off walking in one of the dips. I got so sensitive to it. My arms were held down by my side.” he said patiently. lashing out with fists and feet. he was walking along to his own rhythm. . as a soft yellow light filtered through the branches and leaves above us. I’ve had it. I turned my hands over to look at the palms: They were bright red.” I kicked one of the bags.there were two deep ruts made up of stones. find somewhere to hide out. And these stupid bags keep banging against my leg. but that’s London. or at least I was better. After going on like this for half the morning. it felt like a sledgehammer hitting the side of my knee. Miles. I went ballistic. That was OK. bump. I have got some pride. This is crap! My ankles hurt. I may even have stamped my feet. along the canal and the streets. “we need to get as far away from that car as we can. Spider released me and went to fish the bag out of the hedge. His chin was resting on the top of my head. Spider carried on. and the sound of sirens drifted over from the main road. the bloody shopping bag. big ones and small ones. and a hump of grass in the middle. He was laughing. so I switched to the grassy strip.” But I was. but my ankle kept turning over on the stones. his legs kind of springy — but. until it suddenly decided to slope or there was a hole or whatever. bump. and kind of wrapped me up.” “Yeah. Why don’t we follow this path for an hour and see where we get to?” “You’re not listening to me! I CAN’T DO IT!” I let out a scream of frustration.” In the end we compromised and he carried the awkward one. nodding his head. but all different levels. I’ll carry your bags. of course. “Shh! You’ll have them all running here. and we set off again. “Piss off. crisscrossed with fat white lines where the bags had cut in.
like it was difficult to contain his energy within those walls. there’s a clump of trees at the top there. I let go of the post and realized I’d put my hand on some bird shit. I grabbed hold and swung my leg over.CHAPTER FOURTEEN The lane ended with a gate and a stile.” “Piss off!” I made to wipe my hand on him. I’ve got shit on me now!” I reached down with one leg. There was a dark smudge hugging the curve of a hill that must have been about twenty miles away. away from the earth. laughing his guts out. It was warm. huge and empty. and spread-eagle us on the floor with a gun in the back of our necks?” “What do you mean.” He got hold of all the bags and lifted them over the stile. “It’s not funny. just grass and sky. Spider shook his head. then stepped over himself. I kept thinking of the space between my shoulder blades. Spider loped along with his familiar springy stride. He’d always seemed so restless at school and around the housing projects. “Yeah. After all Spider’s talk of guns. before he managed to grab my wrist and pull me down to the ground to forcibly rub my hand on a clump of grass. Where he sprang along. I felt so tired.” He paused. “Why not?” “Look at it. I found myself studying the way he moved. an obscene amount of sky. You wouldn’t believe how uncomfortable I felt walking into that field. just waiting for a sniper to put a bullet there. It was the right scale for him. take us an hour. but this wasn’t it. There’s nothing between the top of your head and deep space. there’s just sky. a gun…?” “They think we’re terrorists. “It’s too close to the car. I chased him around the bags for a bit. Most of the stuff came off. until gradually my body calmed down and my breathing got back to normal. and peered over. another hill rose up. and then hide out until it starts to get dark. stretching back as far as you could see. “What. You don’t realize in a city how much space buildings take up. Then we gathered up the bags and set off along the path. I was thoroughly freaked out. We sat apart from each other. I didn’t know what I’d imagined being a runaway would be like. and a bit flat. “What?” “I’ve never seen anything so funny in my life! You’re brilliant. the bloody step felt like it was going to give way. and I let out a squeal. leaned on the gate. We put our bags down. haul us out. swiveled ’round. and there was something squishy on my hand. my head full of I can’t…I don’t want to…I hate this. through the middle of a field. Spider shrugged. out into no-man’s-land. then passed it to me. tops.” “We can’t go across there. and I wiped the rest on my pants. “Away from the car we just dumped. “Bloody hell!” I could hear Spider laughing out loud behind me. With my butt in the air. then let go. We can do it. Spider laughed and put his hand out to steady me. They were like waves. We’ve got to get farther away. Everyone for fifty miles around will be able to see us. his legs seemed to eat up the miles. “Can’t we just stay here for a while?” I said. soft git! There’s no trees. The wooden step wobbled when I put my weight on it. as far as you could see. my lungs sucking in the air in great gulps. and gripped the top of a wooden fence post as I brought my other leg over. but it tasted like nectar. the more exposed I felt.” I leaned my head on my arms and shut my eyes. When I was finally on solid ground. In front of me. Not like me. The path seemed to go straight on. As soon as we’d reached the top of one slope and I thought we were near the cover Spider had spotted. feeling for the ground with my foot. It dipped down. This tall black guy from London looked almost at home here. I had never seen such a godforsaken picture of nothingness. an aching tiredness creeping through my arms and legs. so you couldn’t see the other side. no hedges. I couldn’t have felt more vulnerable if I’d been walking along that path stark naked. Here.” “D’you wanna go back? Sit in the car ‘til they find us. my voice muffled by my sleeves.” I nodded my head toward the rural wasteland. I turned ’round to see Spider doubled over. “Where the hell are we going?” I asked. I plodded. Anywhere. more sky than I’d ever seen before.” I looked up. but rising up beyond it were more and more fields. We could get over to that. My chest was heaving from the exertion. I sighed and followed. his long legs going all the way up to his skinny arse. When you take them away. Spider rooted in one of the bags and swigged at a bottle of Coke. his long legs making short work of it. The farther we walked away from the stile. and it’s only gravity stopping you from drifting up and up. “Look. but he ducked away. The only way I could tackle it was to look down at the path and put one foot in front of the other. . my head still down. that? Way over there?” He nodded. There was nothing around us. those streets and buildings.
” I yelled back. It’s freezing. but did that mean anything? There was no stopping him. with thick trees lining the other side of the path. flailing his arms about. He started wading toward it. I’ve seen it in the movies. but he didn’t reply. We smiled and high-fived each other. only one way to find out. tied the handles together. but it’s OK. “How deep is it?” I asked. I’ll get you. I promise. swearing like normal.” I heaved them over to him. He’d disappeared. one after the other. Spider was splashing about. Sure enough. “Jesus! “ he screamed.” Well. He grinned. though. and went back to unpicking the knot my laces had got into. Then we gathered up the bags and set off through the trees. and then looked at the fence. He rolled up his jeans and then kind of slid down the bank and into the water. Spider was making his way toward the bag. I don’t think we’ve got an option. and then I’ll go in. then with a bit of a grunt.” “Jem. I sat down. I just did as I was told. “OK.” he said.Eventually we were walking along the edge of one field. “Here.” he called. The ground dipped sharply down. “There’s a slope and then a river. They’ll lose the scent. You can come across. I stuffed his socks into his shoes and lobbed them over. What the hell. Why don’t we chuck the bags over to the other bank. I stood up to throw them across. but I thought. bobbing about as the water tried to pull it away from whatever was snagging it.” He picked up the first plastic bag. what would I do? I didn’t have time to think of an answer because Spider was soon back. the water just up to his knees. The wire bent under my weight. facing the way we’d just come. looking smug.” he shouted. and vaulted over the barbed-wire fence. There was the sound of water. Finally. and then spring up. frantically scrabbling at his sneakers and socks. “It’s a bit slippy. “Dunno. chuck those bags over. fast-flowing and muddy. It sailed over the water and landed on the other side. I’d seen it in the movies. there was a river at the bottom. You have to be careful. Spider stopped and put his bags down. and your hand on the fence post. “What are you doing?” I shouted. took a quick head start. too. can we? So there’ll be no point having our stuff stuck on the other side. “Bollocks!” he said and sat down. It’ll be OK. If I saw people following us. “It’s like ice!” The bag had floated downstream about thirty feet and got stuck on something over near the other bank. shoes and socks off.” I said dubiously. only about ten feet wide. He didn’t quite get it together. “I don’t know…. But Spider wasn’t. We just need to wade along it for a bit. Spider reached over and grabbed me under my arms and lifted me clean over. At that moment. but I wasn’t watching him. so I was left standing there like a prat. “Whoa!” Spider was halfway across the river. It was OK until the last one. “Wait here a minute. “Come here. and then I’ll help you. and started swinging it backward and forward. we can’t get across. I crouched down to take my shoes off. . “Chuck my sneakers over to the other side and then do yours. The plastic bag was still there. let go. voice high like a girl’s. test it out?” “Why don’t you test it out first. and then if they’ve got dogs they won’t find us. plonking me down safely on the other side. put one foot on the wire.” With no better idea. “I think we have to get across. before we go tossing our bags? If it’s too deep. Jem. and set to work on the others. This is good news for us.” he said seriously. and it went too far up in the air and then straight down into the river. and tried to climb up.
watching his chest rise and fall on its own. We were carried downstream. There was no one around. wake up!” I yelled. I started wading across. I lost my footing and went down into the water. the back of his head — but not his face. then. I plunged down the bank and into the water. I was just wondering if we were going to carry on like this until we got to the ocean. Spider and me. It wasn’t meant to be like this. but I wasn’t strong enough. and pushed both my palms down hard into his stomach. forty feet ahead of him. then a big grin slowly spread across his face. did you?” “No. grunting with frustration. it was more difficult to see where Spider was. it was going to happen to us together — I wasn’t going to let go of him for anything. a plume of water spurted out of him. “You didn’t give me the kiss of life. but I wish I hadn’t now. “Nothing. “Wake up!” Nothing. When my face broke the surface I gulped down some air. ’round a couple of bends. He was gone. and at last got a glimpse of a dark shape heading toward me.” He closed his eyes and opened them again. pushing me under. The thought of him helpless. the smile fading away as the situation sunk in. I got onto my back. how could he have disappeared like that? Suddenly. I hauled him off me and over onto his back. It wasn’t just the cold that shocked me. No one and nothing to help us. He was going to pass to my left. What the hell was going on? I started running again. “I’m happy. too. My eyes scanned the surface of the water — there was no sign of him. but we were wedged on some sort of stony bar. but the water was getting deeper. He opened his eyes and seemed to be trying to focus. Different bits of him were visible as the water turned him around like a rag doll — his arm. Branches along the bank whipped me as I ducked and dived my way through. He was away from me again. Down at that level. I was going to miss him. like a whale’s spout. soaking wet. I was so slow. or something. And again. man. Shut up. and I just sat back on my heels for a while. “What you crying for? What’s up with you?” I hadn’t realized I was crying. I got thirty. I knelt next to him. I had no choice now. Suddenly. but it was all I could do to stay on my feet. looking around him like he’d just landed from another planet. his back. I pulled at a long branch. The river buffeted at my legs with terrifying force. didn’t you?” “No! I squashed your stomach down until the water came out. More water came out. The unreality of it was overwhelming. He couldn’t hear me. I did it again. His eyes were shut. sticking out from one bank into the river. there was an extra movement in the swirling water. I had to go toward the other side or he’d slip right past me. I felt like something in my brain had slipped and shifted: I was alone. then he said. bumping into me. Spider had never existed. I looked wildly around for something to reach him with. Still holding Spider. “You saved me. it wasn’t for a week yet. I was there. Even as I thrashed around. Something broke the surface — a knee. I’d sprung away from him with the surprise of the water. you bloody moron. “Here. happy. and as Spider’s body came barreling into me. This was all wrong — so.” “You did. so that my face was upward. I don’t remember a thing. His face stayed underwater. I got level with him. I drew myself up. desperately trying to find the river bottom. leaned over him. Everything was mixed up now — up and down. Spider was lying facedown on top of my legs. I started running down the bank. and I jarred suddenly to a stop. It was all I could do to find some air myself. when there was a sickening scraping feeling down my back. so wrong.” I said. He was heavy. I thought we were walking through a field and then suddenly I’m flat on my back. but when I wiped my hand across my face there were hot tears and snot there. “I don’t get it. breathing in water. but I couldn’t manage to. You saved my life. I kicked my feet around. I got you out. I held on to his hoodie. I lunged forward. but I grabbed him again. get his head above water.” .” he said. away to my left.” He started to sit up. but it was hopeless. Spider was about a hundred feet away already. because if he had. “Wake up! You can’t fucking leave me! You can’t do this!” I brought my fist down on his chest in sheer frustration. “that’s why I’m all cold and wet. It was only up to my thighs.” he said. I owe you big time. but my feet were on slime. then gripped him under his armpits and pulled him up the sandy spit of land and out of the water. Jesus. Spider was only a few feet away now — damn it. made my own breath nearly stop. too. His mouth fell open and water trickled out. Nothing. an elbow. Spider was like a dead weight. We’d both stopped moving. 12152010. and you’re crying — sorry. trying to break it off. Jem. “Spider. looking at him with disbelief. The jolt made me lose my grip on Spider for a second. And again. I tried to flip him over.” “Right. water and air. you’re all wet. running as fast as I could. Whatever happened to us now.” He reached over to me and ran his hand over my shaved head. it was the strength of it. His number. I searched the water frantically. a lifeless weight. too. What’s going on?” “You fell in the water. screaming and running at the same time. I wanted to straighten him out. I was panicking. The river coursed on around us.CHAPTER FIFTEEN I looked up and down the other bank. being swept along in the current. This wasn’t meant to happen. and he made the most godawful noise I’d ever heard as he drew a massive breath into his waterlogged body. but the current was relentless.
” “There isn’t anyone else here. I’d felt guilty about the old tramp. Look. It wasn’t his day today.I shrugged him off. the numbers were right after all. Spider was in front. but I’d made things turn out different? For the last couple of weeks. and trudged upstream again. But perhaps the numbers were a two-edged sword. shaking his head. but he kept stopping and looking back at me. “Forget about it. alright? It’s not a big deal. And you did. My head was spinning now. What if he’d been meant to die today. surely he would have drowned — he was nearly dead when I dragged him out of the water. I’d kept him alive. and carrying on. I just did what anyone would’ve. at least we’re on the right side of the river now. too? And if I had saved Spider today. Only you could’ve saved me. like usual. though. is there? There was only you. Get some dry clothes. We just need to walk back to our stuff. then smiling. What if I didn’t just have a hand in causing death — what if I could save lives. I was shivering violently. staggered up the bank.” It was true.” “Just drop it. Spider knew it: I had saved him. I’m fucking freezing. We helped each other to our feet. but there was no escaping it: It felt like we’d chased him into the road. and so was Spider. But if I hadn’t been there. I’d never meant to hurt him. could I save him on the fifteenth? . And all the time my mind was racing double-time. So.
Spider must have heard me rummaging about in the plastic bags because he unwound and turned over. It made me feel scared — there was no way that was for me. turning our backs on each other while we got changed. I was too cold — almost panicky cold — to worry if he was peeking. Our adventure in the river had left me feeling dog-tired.” Spider said. disappearing just when you got near them. but it softened it a bit. and you could imagine that you were high up. and besides. I put on as many dry layers as I could find. Any sign they’re following us?” . and followed him into the middle of the woods. I didn’t want to think about what she might wear under her clothes — so I kept my soggy bra and panties on and just changed my jeans and top. making a lacy pattern.” I said after a while. only the noise… When I woke up. I was one of them. we’re here!”—and amazingly. A long way. but I wished we’d got something hot to drink — a nice cup of tea or some hot chocolate. In the hurry to leave. Really soothing. Something comforting. and let my mind focus on the noise. I could see the side of his face. and shut my eyes. Spider was snoring away with his back to me.” “How far’s that?” “Haven’t got a clue.” I flopped backward. Spider was sitting propped up against a tree trunk. If you let yourself go. I tested out the feeling: what it might be like to be someone’s mum.” Spider snorted. More green waves. I just didn’t know.” I passed the Coke over. when you were sitting down the plants and bushes blotted them all out. It was like they were hypnotic. we’ve slept the day away. He’d gathered up all the bags and found a place between four tree trunks to settle down. not caring what I was lying on. you could imagine him as a child — he was peaceful.CHAPTER SIXTEEN Our bags were still lying where we’d chucked them. I didn’t know what was happening to him: It was like he’d suddenly swallowed a sensible pill or something. I reached across and dug into the bags. I could never handle that much responsibility. Walking away from the river. but I lay down flat and looked up at the trees above me. My legs felt like lead as we trudged along. with Val’s coat on top. and shivering. and we both found some dry clothes.” He took a long swig. “Look how far we’ve walked! No wonder I’m knackered. Not surprisingly. Spider had spread out the blanket he’d been carrying. but the pain in my head kept on throbbing. The Coke was welcome. “What?” “Walked all that way. Asleep. Although I knew the trunks were pretty straight. I sank down at the edge of the trees and looked back at the way we’d come. “If we can see all of that. and we bundled our wet clothes together in one bag and set off again — cold. Perhaps we’ll walk all the way to Weston. Spider fished out the one in the river with a branch. going on forever. Although you could still see out to the fields when you stood up. I was beginning to think they were like one of those mirage things in the desert. We were hidden. “We’ve not really been eating and drinking today. looking down hundreds of feet to the leaves below you. struggled to my feet again. I couldn’t believe it was so far. and too busy getting myself dry to think of sneaking a peek at him. I hadn’t got any spare underwear from Val — frankly. my head was aching and my mouth felt disgusting — dry inside and sticky ’round my lips. and even when I sat up and looked around I wasn’t sure if it was morning or evening. You could still feel lumps and bumps underneath you. We were still aiming for a little knot of trees on top of a hill. but it could have been the next morning. that’s better. making this amazing spaced-out sound — it could have been wind or water or even traffic. “Aah. too. curled up like a baby. “What time is it?” “Just gone four. shocked. I had to struggle to remember where I was. No big deal.” He sat up slowly. Their leaves were black against the brightness. The ground was hard and uneven. Let’s go farther in. “I can’t believe we just did that. I rubbed my eyes and my forehead. The wind was swooshing through the branches. but eventually Spider got to the top of one hill and gave a little shout —“Hey. we were. anyone there could see us. you started to get all mixed up in your head. I groaned. Just for a minute. we hit another series of rolling hills. kind of innocent.” “God. My watch said five past four. a bit of the spring had gone out of Spider’s step. it’s pretty cool what you can do when you have to. how could I ever look a child — my own child — in the face and see their death before they’d even begun? Some people aren’t cut out for all that. man. We scrambled down the other side and up the last rise. they looked like they were bending together over me as they stretched up into the sky. “I feel rough.” I groaned again. almost too complicated to look at. It was weird. which I guessed was the end of the afternoon. looking for something to drink. and into the relative cover of a little clump of woodland. “Yeah.
and then across the middle to pick up another biscuit. The air temperature was dropping even lower. then. chewing and talking at the same time. but for tonight. silhouetted against the inky sky. we were suddenly faced with twelve hours of nothing to do. “I’ve never seen so much sky. I can’t hear anything. We both wandered around the wood for a bit. tattered pieces of bright blue on the ground. and have fish and chips every day. just have a laugh. and there was no question of sleeping. walking through the fields. There’s so much air.” He started clambering up a tree. Great flat beach. We don’t know what we’re doing! We haven’t got a clue!” “For Christ’s sake! You are vexing me with your attitude. They seemed to move so slowly. but I didn’t even care.” “We haven’t got time. You’ll love it. an agitated cartoon. and that’s it. you moron? I don’t wanna be here. but at least we had had four metal walls and a roof. write things in the sand. Whichever way you looked at it. and chocolate. “It’s like this at the seaside. just fuck off!” “You fuck off!” he shouted without turning ’round. I went back to our camp and lay down on my side. I didn’t mind if I never walked anywhere ever again. “I can’t see anything. Having decided we were going to stay put. walking out in the fields with all that sky above us. Jem. I wanted to scream. It’s not just me!” We were shouting in each other’s faces now. We haven’t even got a flashlight. too. set off early tomorrow. with the same result.” Spider flung his arms out wide. but it’s going to be dark soon. Can you see anywhere? It would take hours to find somewhere. Of course. I didn’t want to be out there in the dark. put me in this situation. and on to the other side. we’re here. “You can’t be a little girl out here! You’ve gotta grow up. crackers. Listen. went into my eyes. we delved into the bags and munched our way through chips. we were in trouble. His spit sprayed my cheeks. I had no idea what went on in the countryside at night — animals? people with guns out hunting? — and I didn’t want to find out. cookies. If I closed my eyes. I think we should rest up here. pulling the coat over me and the blanket ’round me.” “I don’t wanna be here. I saw bodies and bits: that old guy flying through the air. “Yeah.” I wasn’t going to argue with that. going so slowly. then looked away for a few seconds. “Why haven’t we got a flashlight? Why?! Wasn’t it just a little bit stupid to come out here without a flashlight?” “Are you calling me stupid? What about you? Look in the mirror. I’m walking away from you before I do something or say something. wagging a long finger in front of my eyes. I could still see him. We were stuck on a tiny island. up to the edge on one side. There’s two of us out here and neither of us brought a flashlight. and sea and sky.” he said. can I? There’s no fucking mirror! There’s no fucking anything!” “Look. like the color was being sucked out of it.” I said with a shiver. like a pair of bugs crawling on the surface of the planet. We can walk along the pier. “I can’t look in a fucking mirror.” “It’s good when you get used to it. I was starting to lose it. Bit like us. man. but what are you gonna do? Watch TV?” The reality of it was dragging me down. Don’t you fucking walk away from me! but I bit my lip.” “We’ll have a look in a minute.” He turned ’round to face me. The light was going from the sky.” Around us. but if you fixed your eyes on one. I started thinking about the cold. looked out at the view from various points. we’ve just got to deal with it. I stood for a long time watching banks of cloud roll across. tried to disentangle the angry thoughts in my head and think straight.” Once again. but didn’t get very far before his feet slipped down. Let’s try and find somewhere else. and we’d be walking in the dark. it had gone farther than you thought. there was nowhere to go. the world was going from color to black-and-white.” And he stalked off. Spider stood up as he was eating and walked around our little woodland. “Let’s not stay here. Spider. Jem. my mum. Let’s have some food. I was so mad that he’d brought me here.” “I know. man! What’s wrong with you? You were way harder back in London. tried to calm myself down. you can fill your lungs with it over and over again. mate. OK? I’ll try and find us a car tomorrow. to sit still.” I said. “What do we do then?” “We’ll just have to go to sleep. “We’ll find a B&B. It became impossible to relax. Soon it would be just black. It had been bad enough the night before in the car. He tried again. “It’s going to be dark soon.” He was right in my face.” “It’s only half past four. and then looking back to find we’d covered miles. the blackness. So I kept them .“Dunno. “It did my head in. “I was thinking we should walk on a bit farther. don’t you understand. shaking his head and flapping his hands about.
Dole queue. I heard Spider crunch back through the undergrowth.” he continued.” Spider said quietly. No future at all. “I’m sorry and all that. They can trace them. you know. walking across some fields. God. trying to figure out what he was up to. I don’t think running around for Baz or anyone like him is much of a career. trying to get comfortable. Don’t even remember her. “Sweet. not believing it for a minute. though. just being in the moment. I don’t want to be no cliché black boy.” “Do you think you should call her? Let her know you’re alright?” “Nah. I want to start a new sort of life. fill the void with words. comforting. “I knew you weren’t asleep. and he was probably too stupid to figure out what it meant. My mum pissed off with some bloke when I was still a baby. can you? I could never tell someone their number. but every fiber of me was tuned in to him now.” The knot that had been forming in my stomach as he spoke gave a lurch and tightened to a physical pain. I dunno. I don’t wanna be like that. that’s not going to happen. A tiny crackle as his cigarette took.” “You going to go back to school. to the boy with only a week left? What he was saying. just work on one. shouldn’t think so.” A picture of her standing by the side of the road as we left — was it only yesterday afternoon?—flashed into my head.” “She’s cool. and then a long breath out and a gentle sigh of satisfaction.” I said. it was inspirational. it touched me. and his voice said. It was breaking my heart to hear him talk about the future. People like you and me. not fall back into my old ways. Loads of money. Don’t think I missed out on anything — I’ve always had Nan. man. But it was way too late. then more rummaging. Daft old bitch. “How come you ended up living with your nan? Do you mind me asking?” “Nah. and the sound of something scraping. the little leaves bending under its weight. “No way!” “No. Change the subject. He was speaking from the heart. building site. it was right. I’m not going to talk to him. he was right. My skin started to itch at the thought of bugs and spiders crawling all over me all night. the countryside was disgusting. except bastards like McNulty. trying to get back in control of my emotions. “I heard you tell Nan about your mum.” “I wouldn’t have to buy a farm. it’s not safe to phone. you know. We passed the cigarette between us for a while. he can do whatever the hell he likes. I wanted to tell him everything — to share it. We’ve got out. a statistic. and leaves at ground level in front of my eyes. But you can’t do that.” “Why not? Do you need a diploma to be a farmer? Do you need a degree? Do you need to be white?” “I dunno. I thought. I like the feel of it under my feet. If the numbers were right. twigs. do you want a drag?” The glowing tip of the cigarette moved toward me as he held it out. I don’t wanna go back. No big secret. Wherever we end up. I don’t wanna do that stuff.” All this. welcome though it was — it just felt good to reestablish a connection. street. “Come on. your nan. not speaking much. get your equivalency?” I asked. there was the unmistakable flick of a lighter and a little glow in the gloom. based on one day. familiar. I swallowed hard. She’ll be cool. “Do you think there are any black farmers?” “I dunno. checkout. The way I saw it. Spider. “I’ve got out now. I took it and inhaled. How could I sit there and listen to him. He had obviously fetched out another blanket. There was something reassuring about the smoke — it felt normal. I need to find something else. think I’ve left it a bit late for that. Here. After a pause.open and stared at the odd pattern of branches. something metallic. then plonk himself down nearby and rummage in the bags. I don’t care. I want to be different.” . Why?” “I like this place. “The Nutter was right. but I didn’t really mean the smoke. maybe work out a way to change it. Then Spider said.” His voice was passionate in the dark. Nan’ll be alright. we couldn’t really afford to fall out. “Nah. I sat up.” “Yeah. I guess you need money. If… I knew I was on the edge of blabbing. we’ve got the future all mapped out from the time we’re born. because I could hear him shifting around where he sat. I watched a bug of some kind struggle up the stem of a plant and totter about at the end. I like looking for miles.” What he was saying. But I want to do something.
And we lay there.” “Too right. waiting for the light to creep back into the sky. I reckon I’d fit right in. I was so awake now that sleep was out of the question. And ghosts and werewolves and all the other things that go bump in the night.“Not your fault. and I knew it.” “I know. I guess I was pretty deep under when an almighty screech woke me with a start. ripping something to shreds. in the acres of dark stretching away in every direction. Its voice seemed to emphasize how alone we were. I could hear him squirming through the leaves and stuff on the ground. I opened my eyes. on us.” I lapsed into silence. right then I believed in witches. it was pitch-black. I’ve never heard one before. aren’t they? Where’s a stone or something?” He sat up and rummaged around next to him. A few seconds later the screeching set up again. then stood up and launched something into the trees above us. Our voices sounded thin in the open air. but after a while I felt his hand inching over my blanket until he found mine. Another bloodcurdling screech. Noisy buggers.” Whatever it was went off again. All I could do was lie there and listen and try not to think too much. so loud it felt like it was all around us. Whatever life I would have had with her. I was a liar. I could hear it clipping the leaves and branches.” “Do you believe in witches?” “Shut up!” Yeah. the dark space all around us. We might manage one night out here. And we were both awake when we heard a new sound thudding through the heavy night air — a helicopter. “What do you think it is?” he said in a low voice. We talked on and off for hours. but a long way away now. but there was little difference: Open or closed. “You’re a true countryman. “It’s an owl. but grew fainter and fainter as the owl went off looking for somewhere less dangerous to perch. but…” “Probably better off without her. “Did you hear that?” I whispered. too scared to move. hand in hand. I would rather have had that — had some sort of home — than the gypsy life I’d had since she died. She was…complicated. in us. but as long as we kept going. . The gaps between conversations got bigger as we started to drift in and out of consciousness. I felt the cold taking hold of me. very near to my ear. Jem. Spider shifted nearer. “I don’t know. aren’t you? Chucking stones at an owl. they’re always shooting something or setting their dogs on it. this time followed by a couple of loud hoots.” The owl was still protesting. “You’d have to be dead not to hear that. a high-pitched screaming noise tearing into the night. As we listened. I was wideawake. but we’d have to find something else tomorrow. I thought Spider was asleep. they fended off the unknown ghosts and monsters waiting out there. smell him getting closer. Nobody’s child.
“Can you hear that?” I asked. Stupid question. “Mm.” “Do you think it’s just a helicopter?” He knew what I meant. Just a helicopter taking someone somewhere, going from A to B. “I dunno.” He moved away from me, crawling through the undergrowth. It was still dark, but there was a hint of blueness in the sky when we looked back the way we’d come yesterday. It was over there that the noise was coming from. “It’s just hovering there, Jem. Shining a light down. There’s other lights, too.” I could hear him worming his way back to me, then he was there, right beside me, rolling up his blankets. “Come on, Jem. We’ve got to get a move on. Looks like they’re onto us.” “Spider, it’s dark. We haven’t got a flashlight, remember?” “We’ll just have to do our best. Better to move in the dark, anyway.” “Yes, but…” I was going to point out the mud, the fences, the barbed wire, but another noise cut in then. The sound of a dog barking. It was coming from behind us, too. Lights, helicopters, dogs. I had a sick feeling in my stomach. This was a proper manhunt. I shut up and started bundling up my belongings. We blundered out of the copse and set off down the hill. You couldn’t see where you were putting your feet, and the ground was so rough we both kept stumbling and tripping. I put my right foot into a dip and staggered forward. I dropped my bags and flailed my arms blindly, trying to rescue my balance. My right hand found something to grab on to, but it dug into me as it moved under my grip, and I still fell forward. Something ripped across my face as I sank down onto the ground and let out a string of curses. “Where are you?” Spider’s voice came through the dark. “I’m here! I don’t know where I fucking am!” “Don’t move. I’m coming.” He found his way back to me, at first nothing more than a dark shape against the darkness. As he came close, I could see his face was furrowed with concern. “Jesus, Jem, you’ve fell in some barbed wire. Here…” He gave me his hands and pulled me up onto my feet. I gasped and cursed again as he squeezed the wound on my right hand. “Have you got a hankie or something?” he asked. I reached into my pocket and found an old tissue. He took it and gently wiped my face. It hurt like hell. My hand was screaming, too. Spider ferreted about in a bag, pulled out one of his T-shirts, and ripped a strip of it off. He wound it ’round my hand and tied it in a knot. He was taking charge again, doing his best, but even as he did it, my confidence was slipping away. “We’re stuffed, Spider, aren’t we?” “What do you mean?” “They’re gonna get us today. Worse now, the dogs will pick up the smell of the blood, won’t they?” “I dunno about that. I think that’s sharks, the blood thing. Anyway, we’ve got a head start and we’re on the other side of the river. We should just keep going, find somewhere to hide out. I think we need to be in a building, so the helicopter can’t see us. They use those cameras, don’t they? Pick up on your body warmth, but I don’t think it works through buildings. Here—” He picked up my bags. “I’ll take these. Are you OK to carry on for a bit?” “Yeah, s’pose.” He set off and I stuck close to him this time. It was taking ages to get light, because it was cloudy. I glanced behind me, but the top of the hill was blocking the view back. Stupid, anyway. Did I really want to see the people following us? I caught up with Spider again, and we trudged across the fields. If I’d felt exposed the day before, it was ten times worse today. If the helicopter came our way before we found somewhere to hide, we’d had it. The skin on the back of my neck was pricking, anticipating the thudding of the chopper blades getting closer and closer. We walked solidly all morning, sweating in our thick coats despite the icy wind, not speaking — there was nothing to say. We came across a couple of farms, but the buildings were all together: house, barns, sheds. Wouldn’t take anyone long to search them. We needed something more remote. It took us several hours to find a barn. It stood in the corner of a field and was made of metal — great tall legs, a crinkly metal roof, and no sides. It was on its own, beside another little knot of trees, no houses for miles. There were piles of hay stacked up like hairy yellow bricks forming walls along two sides. Once we got nearer, we saw something else under there — a ramshackle metal fence with cows inside. They raised their heads as we approached, snorting and snuffling. I’d never been close to a cow before, only seen them on TV — no joke, they were massive.
“No way,” I said to Spider. “Not here. Not with those things.” “They’re behind a fence,” he said doubtfully. I could tell he was as wary as me. “Yeah, but look at it. It’s only held together with string.” The cows were still watching us, like they were expecting something. Then, without warning, one of them suddenly went berserk and butted into the one next to it, sending shock waves through the lot of them as they scattered and then regrouped. That was it. “We can’t stay here. We’ll get trampled.” “There’s nowhere else, is there, Jem? At least there’s some shelter here. Look, if they get out we can climb up the hay, can’t we? Cows can’t climb, can they?” “I dunno.” We sat down on a hay bale and looked at the cows. A couple of them were still eyeballing us, but most of them had gone back to nibbling the hay. One of them lifted its tail, still eating, and a stream of brown liquid poured out. I have never seen anything so gross in my life. Instinctively, I held my hand up to cover my mouth, as my empty stomach heaved. I looked away, but Spider’s jaw had dropped, and he was staring at it in horror, completely mesmerized. “That is one sick cow,” he said, eyes still on it. “Either that or someone’s been feeding it curry. Last time I had curry, bloody hell…” “Shut up!” I managed to say before the dry heaves silenced me again. Hunched up, I staggered out of the barn and stood a few feet away, bent over with my hands on my legs, trying to calm my stomach down and suck in some fresh air. After a bit, I could hear Spider walking over toward me. “You alright?” “No.” I felt his hand on my back. It rested there for a second, then moved gently up and down, soothing me. I focused on his hand, where it touched me, and my stomach muscles gradually unwound. Even though I was feeling better, I stayed bent over for a while, not wanting to dislodge his hand. I’d never been one for physical contact, but this was comforting, warm. When I straightened up, Spider was just standing there, not looking at me but staring into the distance. He let his hand fall off my back. The wind was whipping across the fields, with a bit of an edge to it now. “Better?” he asked, without turning his head. “No, well, yeah.” I wanted to say thank you to him, for calming me down, making me feel better, but that would have been too soft. Instead, I followed where he was looking, back the way we’d come. “How long do you think we’ve got? Before they catch up with us?” “Dunno. I can’t hear the helicopter anymore.” We stood there for a bit, both straining to pick up the heavy, choppy drone. Maybe it was just the wind getting up, drowning it out, but the noise didn’t seem to be there anymore. I started shivering, and Spider put his arm across my shoulder. “Come on. We’d better find the best place to hide. We need to get somewhere in the back, right behind that hay.” Again, faced with something to do, Spider launched himself into it. Talk about bloody Action Man — he was throwing bales around, piling them up, shouting instructions at me. He was making a sort of tunnel; one minute he’d disappear, crawling on his hands and knees, the next he’d come backing out lugging another bale. Then he came out frontways, a big stupid grin on his face. “Here, get in.” I must have made a face, because he said, “It’s alright. Come on, or I’ll come out and drag you in.” I got down on my hands and knees, peered inside, and then started to crawl in. It hurt when I put my hand flat on the floor, so I just leaned on the fingertips of my right hand and shuffled through as best I could. It was pretty dark inside, but not completely black, and the tunnel wasn’t that long. After about fifteen or so feet it opened out into a little room, or really a cave. There was just enough room for me and Spider to sit side by side. I couldn’t see him too well, but I could smell him. The exertion of lugging the bales around, after walking for hours, and the fact that he hadn’t washed since God knows when — apart from a dunk in a river thick with mud — had increased the strength of his normal staleness to Olympic proportions. “What do you think? Cool, isn’t it? All we need to do is pull a bale across the entrance behind us and we’re sitting pretty. Shall I go and do it now, see how easy it is?” The thought of being sealed in there with him was too much. I lurched toward the tunnel again. “No, it’s alright. We can do that later, if we need to.” Emerging back into the barn, I breathed in deeply. Even the stench of the cow shit was better than Spider’s rankness. Spider crawled out of the tunnel, looking like a dog with two dicks. I didn’t mean to burst his bubble, but my hand was hurting, and I was tired and scared. I suppose I just said what was in my head, without stopping to think about it first. “Spider, if they do find us here, we’re stuffed, aren’t we?” His face changed instantly, like someone had switched off the light. And I hated myself for doing that to him. “Yeah, Jem. If they find us here, we’re cornered. We’ll be like rats in a barrel.” He got to his feet and came and sat on a bale next to me. He leaned forward, resting his arms on his thighs, head down. His voice was low, intense. “I won’t go quietly, Jem. I’ll fight them, Jem. I will.” I knew he had a knife with him. The way he was talking now, I was pretty sure he’d use it. I could feel anxiety shooting through my veins. “It’s not worth it, Spider. If they really corner us, we should give up. What have they got on us, after all?
just chuck me inside for a few months. “Don’t ask me. “You stink. We shared the last bag of chips. All gone. Perched on some hay bales. I couldn’t get comfortable. they’ll lock me up. “What do you mean?” he said. The noise was incredible. we ate the rest of our stuff. It felt fantastic. He sniffed hard. I’d rather fight and die. they’ll go easy on you. Once we’d eaten. I check all the boxes. and the spikes of hay were scratchy. “Take good care of him. talking a bit. I promise. He was angry. both felt ground down by it. Christ. did you? There’s that knife thing at school. a noise had been building up in the background.” he whispered. I don’t wanna be locked up. I felt sticky. I turned my back on the cows so they wouldn’t put me off eating. “What you doing?!” Spider had emerged behind me. It crucified me to see him like that. I could hear drumming on the tin roof. We had no alternative. “What?” “Is today when it all ends for me? You know. wriggling where I lay. and the words she’d said to me — was it only two days ago? — came ringing back into my head. how big. you could hear them blowing air through their big hairy nostrils. even through the blanket. “Is it today. Jem. some people. Big deal. Jem. munching away all the time. You’ve nicked some money. Jem.” I said quietly. I tipped my face up toward the sky. I don’t know how long we lay there. so serious and solemn. but a little white girl like you. Now. Every time one of them farted. . are you listening? It’s not today. mate. I wriggled out of the tunnel and sat on a hay bale. His eyes were red-rimmed. like he’d done to me before.” he said. The bales were quite hard underneath. yeah. No offense. Then he sat up and looked straight at me.” Down to my bra and undies. pulling my top over my head and unbuttoning my jeans. Karen and Social Services on your side.” This was all getting to be too much — I was in way too deep.We didn’t do nothing at the Eye. and had a chocolate bar each. Lost in the system. in a pause. too. but he was scared. mate. listening to the cows. They can’t pin that on us. water battering down on metal. Spider. We’d have to take some action tomorrow. They’ll throw the book at you. but probably only about five o’clock. If you tried not to think about how revolting they were. I suddenly thought of Val. I yanked at the laces. Easily pleased. and so was my scalp. “I’m going to get clean. “I won’t do it. I don’t wanna be just another kid they’ve thrown away. really dark. That was it. but there wasn’t much to say. “Doesn’t bother me. We ate slowly. icy pinpricks hitting my defenseless skin. I could feel every bone in his knobbly spine through his clothes. My jeans got stuck on my sneakers. “Spider. “I could do with a bath. come outside.” He dropped his hands down and looked at me. was itching like mad. And I stink. Keep him safe. You know I can’t tell you. and a last swig of Coke. we both knew. “I shouldn’t have asked. trying to scratch my back against the hay underneath. Bare feet. like he was praying.” I said. Spider. We were running out of options now. “I can’t do it.” “Jem. My skin. don’t you? Are they going to find us? Are they going to put a bullet in me like they did to that guy on the Tube?” I felt tears stinging my eyes.” “Oh. typical juvenile offender. spread out our blankets. He put both hands up to his mouth. Jem?” I stared blankly at him.” And all the time I was thinking.” I said. but when I looked at him. I couldn’t let it go on. I could feel mud and crap splashing up my legs as great drops hit the ground. It was raining. and curled up a little way apart from each other. knew he could work himself up into a temper. Come on. a year. I didn’t care. Is that how it will happen? I put my hand on his back and moved it up and down.” He rubbed his hands through his hair. I ran outside. and I won’t ever ask you again. It was dark now. It was lashing down. “Obviously. “Thank you. He was breathing hard. there was nothing to do again. trying to make a meal out of hardly anything. the woman who had comforted him like that when he was little. He was so skinny.” He looked like a little boy. pretending I didn’t know what he was asking. with two days’ grime. his face was all squeezed tight like he was going to cry. Fresh. through the bristles of hair. wiped his sleeve across his nose. too.” He smashed his hand down into the straw next to him. no priors. “It’s not today. panic in them as clear as day. They won’t think twice. Don’t ever say that. whatever happens. eyes flicking left and right.” “Don’t say that. it was actually quite a mellow sound. But they’ll take one look at me — think about it. I’d heard him go off on tirades before. You might be OK — you didn’t nick the cars. rubbed my hands over it and over my scalp. After a while. We both knew we were in trouble. and he nodded. we crawled into Spider’s hay cave. I wanted to put my arms around him and tell him everything was going to be OK. We nicked a couple of cars. or even a shower. As we swallowed the last mouthfuls. horrible.” said Spider. and I don’t wanna. now. but I doubt anyone’s reported that. but you do. If you start fighting — cut one of them — that’s different.” While we’d been talking. moving around in the hay. so I broke my rule. We lay there. We talked a bit. Spider hooted with laughter.
the aggression and awkwardness. laughing my head off. He was so skinny. and his nose nuzzled mine. but he stood there.” “I know. the . He tilted my head and bent down toward me. didn’t they?” “It’s just rain. whooping. His words went straight into the middle of me. “It’s refreshing!” “It feels like needles!” “Rub it in. then held both his hands and pulled him outside. maddest thing. dancing and skipping. smiling and shaking his head. Not me. I turned my head away so he wouldn’t see my tears.” “How do you know?” “Well. why would they start now?” We’d stopped dancing. “You’ve lost it. Rub the water in. “Nothing. carried away with the exhilaration. paralyzed with self-consciousness. before I felt his lips press gently on mine. but I grabbed his arm. I joined in.” He started to get into it. At the same time. then stood. Our heights were so mismatched. all over. I closed my eyes. It was the maddest. man!” he shouted. catching raindrops on my tongue. faceup again. “You’ve really lost it. the rain was thundering down around us. and we waltzed around like a couple of maniacs. twirling around with my arms outstretched. not because he was buff. just because there was no fat hiding them. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. “It’s great! Come on out here!” “Na-ah. He backed away. Jem.” He rubbed one arm. Spider picked his way out to me gingerly. stomach sucked in.” he said. “Oh.” “No. I’m alright. and I watched him as he smoothed the water from his face and shoulders and chest. laughing as my feet slipped in some mud and I almost went over. his body trying to defend itself against the cold. His face was so close. then moved up to his shoulder. seeing beyond what everyone else saw — the twitching and swearing. This isn’t happening. yeah. it was sort of distorted. “What?” he said. I was past shyness. but he still had his arm around me. My stomach kind of flipped over. curved over. He stood there with his arms across his body. “I mean it.” I said unsteadily. Down to his briefs. I laughed. running his hands over his hair.” I bellowed back. It’s mad!” I ran back out. Once he started to get wet. I felt my whole body flush with the shock of it. man. It was like I was seeing him for the first time. “I can’t believe we’re doing this. There’s no one up there. but the number was there. I felt him start to move away again and opened my eyes. then pulled me in toward him and put his arm ’round my waist. no one’s been looking out for me for the past fifteen years. “I’ll always look out for you. “It’s freakin’ freezing!” he squealed. I got wet enough yesterday.” “You have to keep moving or you’ll freeze!” He suddenly took off. it’s fine. There was no “always” for this boy. “Someone up there likes you!” he shouted into my ear. started stripping off and throwing his clothes back into the barn. You could see his muscles. I just had time to think. turning his face up like me. I smoothed the rain into my skin. my eyes were at the level of his chest. my eyes starting stinging. you’re right. And all the time.The itchiness was going away. He brought his hand up to hold the end of my chin and gently turned my head back toward him. “What do you mean?” “They sent you a shower just when you wanted it. mouth open. I looked across to the shed. His mouth moved slightly. I realized he was looking at me. and it struck me suddenly. He grabbed my hand and spun me around. In the gloom I could see Spider leaning against one of the metal legs. losing myself in the dark and the rain. leaping around like a lunatic. he gave in.” I ran over to him. He was beautiful.” “Getting cold?” “Nah. closing his eyes. He let out a whoop of joy. stiffly.
and we kissed again. “Don’t be. And we lost ourselves in each other. As he moved away. he became more familiar. his features morphing back into the Spider I knew. in the dark.” “No.” I reached up and cupped the back of his neck and drew him down to me. “I’m sorry. gently exploring the faces and features we’d thought we knew so well.” I said quickly. He frowned. let go of me. and held up both his hands.” he said.same as ever. . Standing in the rain. in a totally different dimension. “Sorry.
Can see your face. my God. my stomach. He was running his fingers through my short. It felt like something was over between us. if I’d said I loved him. kissing him tenderly. and we did it. the intimacy. on an itchy blanket. I knew my arms were fending him off. you seem more like a girl with your hair short. “Yeah. I told myself. forced stuttering laughter out of my mouth. so my hands were resting on the hay behind me. and that felt like Spider’s. and held him closer. “Fuck off!” “OK. with my head on his chest.” It was too much. there was only a slight comforting muskiness as I nestled into him. “Well. but that was before I fell in love with you. too new. It was a willful act — I was laying myself open to him. anyway. I promised. “It’s fine.” The laughter drained away as I saw how hurt he was. cursing yet again our lack of a flashlight. to let him in.” But he’d let go of me. I said the thing I always said. Loads of times. “Your pretty face. and huddled together. the wetness. I’m sorry. the tension of it all. no bra or panties. It brought me back into my body. the bizarre sensations all over my skin. he was still fizzing with energy. Come here. The hay bales beneath us may have rocked a bit. We really did it — there. down in a line. I’d killed it with my big mouth.” “It’s alright. If we were going to do this.” I wasn’t far from crying now. Not because of the sex. I became an observer. the blanket was hopelessly inadequate. urging him with my mouth to kiss me back. I’m nervous. Even then. I’m fairly sure no one had ever thought it. there and then. mechanical — all over in a minute or so — not worth worrying about. because of the closeness.” “No. what had I done? “I’m sorry. ’course not. A few feet away. and softly traced the line of my jaw with his finger. I made myself lift up my arms. With you. The rain had washed away his sour smell. inside me. “Funny. But afterward. I’m sorry. I sat up and began to cast about for my clothes.” He kissed my forehead. my chin. instinctively crossing my arms over my tits. didn’t I? That doesn’t count. all my emotions way too near the surface. I’d have to trust him. Oh. though. only one sock. making me shiver violently. I’ve done it once now. I put on.” I smiled. Jem. His face was deadly serious — I’d never seen him so serious.” If I’d said it back to him. I didn’t want to. it isn’t. He caressed me and stroked me.” His hurt was so intense it was physical. It was wonderful. I was there with him again. . and the absurdity of us naked in a smelly barn. He was trying to touch me there. Whatever I found. “No. nibbling. but the earth didn’t move. Spider stopped what he was doing and looked up at me. Without his warmth. He shifted over so we were face-to-face. after all that. isn’t it?” “Yeah. right over my head. my nose. I reacted how I always had. moved away. I drew him down to me.CHAPTER EIGHTEEN I lay back on the blanket. He responded eagerly. once. short hair. a sweater. He fumbled in the dark.” I waited. Spider was doing the same. my jeans. to kiss me. forget it. It’s just…I’m just…not used to it. I’m an idiot. and I found myself stepping away in my mind. I don’t know how to behave. with the dust from the hay and the smell of cow shit in our nostrils. my side. ’course. it was just so difficult.” But I couldn’t hold down my nervous giggles. It was too new and too weird. and sucking.” “Why not? A promise is a promise. we were different. We covered ourselves up as much as we could with the two blankets and the old green coat.” His lie hung in the air. “You’re laughing. yeah. “Oh. “Have you done that before?” I asked. It was awkward. a black moon hanging over us where we lay. the rest would have to wait until there was some light. either. his hands so restless. while the other hand moved over my arm.” No one had ever called me pretty before. It was better when we were kissing. It’s fine. And shocking. “OK. nervous energy trembling out of the ends of his fingers. We relaxed in the softness of each other’s mouths.” I said. “I thought I told you never to say anything nice to me. and the cold that had been lurking in my hands and feet spread all over me. “Did I do something wrong?” “No. If…if…if.” He snorted. kissing. “I’ve never done this before.
but was frightened he’d just shrug me off. stroking and sighing. We were peaceful and calm together. And as we breathed in each other’s breath and I buried my hands in his spongy hair.” A pause. It was like I was someone else. to see me for who I was.I curled up. just holding you tight. They’d settled down in the hay and their own filth and were just gently chewing and breathing. and suddenly it was alright again. either. too.” I dug my fingernails into his back. When you think about it. It’s going to be different for us now. I was chilled right through. It’s in the past. “For earlier. then. I lay in the crook of his arm. and we had sex again. sadness in that sigh.” And he held me. Could have been just breathing out. Me. slow and tender. butt-naked. yes. I wanted to reach out to him. the real me. Prison.” “It’s fine. and then roll about in a barn. I was part of it: moving and kissing. you’re going to get cold. And I saw him. if you’re going to dance around in the rain with your clothes off in December. shut up. “I’m sorry. . “Come here. I needed him. He wrapped one of his long arms around my shoulders and I snuggled into him. He sighed. and my hands moved around him. Jem. even the cows were quieter. He was beautiful. we’re lovers now. but I wasn’t. Behind us.” “Tell me about it. That’s how it would have been for me. Jem. “I feel like my life’s screwed up before I’ve even got started. too. too. and he was still. “Ow! What’s that for? Leaving your mark on me?” “No. long pause. “Are you awake?” I whispered. eh?” He kissed the end of my nose. but even with some clothes on. it probably would have been dope and pills and smoking crack and shooting up junk. “Yeah. but…I didn’t mean to say it. A long.” I said. If I hadn’t met you. not a twitch or a tremor. I didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s alright. Hospitalization. I was too cold to sleep. “But we are starting again. and he took them and slid them under his clothes onto the bare skin of his chest and stomach to warm them up. I thought. Lovers’ tiff. We lay there in silence. We came up for air and lay cuddling. my hand resting on his chest. moved down to my mouth. And I didn’t just lie there. My hands were still cold. and I fell asleep with his warm breath on my face and his heart beating next to mine. felt the tears burning my eyes.” “I know.” “I’m freezing. aren’t you? I guess being hungry didn’t help.” “I know. my voice nearly disappearing in the darkness of the huge barn. but to me there was frustration. and there was no way I could even try with this wall of silence between us. “Wouldn’t it be good if you could start again?” I said. We’re alright.” I shuffled over to him as he turned over. and Spider was the only person ever to have found me.” He turned over to face me again. but you saved me from that.” “Yeah. Lovers. This was me. Afterward. anger. my arms enclosing him. only it was making love this time. I could hear Spider shifting about as he bedded down.
The cows were struggling to their feet. Me. Nothing for breakfast. I could hear the warm. we heard a car crunching down the drive behind us. We were just together now. curved into my body. A massive four-wheel drive thing came ’round . Anyway. It wasn’t easy walking on a completely empty stomach. “Whassahurry?” “We need to get out of here. “We’d better get up.” I said. but everywhere was soaked. We put the blankets in a couple of bags and left. doesn’t it. and he nuzzled the top of my head. “I’m just cold. won’t they?” He dropped the cigarette butt and ground it under his foot. a small comfort in an otherwise bleak world. “I think we should risk using the phone.CHAPTER NINETEEN I was waking up slowly. but didn’t let go of me. it’s morning. still in a dream.” “I know. When the path narrowed. rubbed my hands up and down his chest to wake him up. and I felt enclosed. That little movement woke him up. “I’ve seen it all now.” I whispered. I looked down and there was Spider’s arm draped over my waist. We shared it in silence. Here…” I balled up the sock of his that I’d been wearing and chucked it at him. “What you doing that for?” a sleepy voice asked. and there were big puddles lying on the tarmac at the side of the road. him reaching back. As we set off. but we stood a few feet away from the road.” We lit another smoke and passed it back and forth. No time to move on. side by side. then undressed in order to get dressed properly again. I gathered up my clothes and did my best to brush the crap off them. and my body was rebelling against what I was asking it to do. acid emptiness. I’m cold. while water dripped onto us from the trees above. It had stopped raining.” he said. really. My jeans got heavier as the water soaked up from the bottoms. yeah. up a track to a farm. too.” He opened one lazy eye. swerving out when they spotted us. it was real. Spider groaned. isn’t it?” Spider asked eventually. After a couple of minutes. not even a drink. A couple of them sounded their horns. It had got to twenty past eight when we stopped.” Once dressed. he put them both in one hand and gently scooped up one of mine in his free one. He was on his side. and quickly put on my T-shirt. They’ll trace it. They were all in a hurry. I just nodded.” I wriggled out of his arms and sat up. My nostrils were full of earthy. Surely someone would come up to check on the cows. get up. We looked at each other. I opened my eyes to face a wall of hay. but my back was warm.” “I dunno — but they’ll be waiting for us to use the phone. Properly together. I could tell by the weight of his arm. really tired. there was something heavy lying across me. speeding along this little country lane like it was a racetrack. “It’s pretty grim. “I’m hungry. Get a taxi. like we’d mushed into sickly boyfriend-girlfriend stuff? But it wasn’t like that. I was curled up on my side as usual. My legs were tired.” “No way. even breath on my scalp. Oh. it was all too wet. he went a bit in front. They didn’t just leave them for days. There was no question about what we had to do today — we needed to find a bit of civilization — so we followed the path back to the main road. Sounds soppy.” “What else can we do? We’re stuck in the middle of nowhere here. We walked along. The cows had lined up by their fence and were watching us curiously. You don’t need to hide. I put my hand onto Spider’s arm and hugged him in closer. Spider put his bags down and lit one of our last cigarettes. We couldn’t sit down anywhere. I felt more selfconscious in the cold light of day. we’ve got to go. Spider carried our plastic bags. taken by surprise. like we shouldn’t be in the road at all. did they? I swiveled around under his arm. It was just getting light. anyway. shitty air — animal and vegetable all mixed up. “Just five more minutes. Where did they expect us to walk? In the ditch? Tossers. not knowing what was real and what wasn’t. “Come on.” And so we lay together a little longer. “Yeah. I was awake now. and we carried on. planted a kiss. kicking the hay around — I guess that’s what woke me up. Nobody stopped.” “I know. but I couldn’t even taste yesterday’s food — just sour. “OK. not speaking. his heavy. I started getting worried about someone finding us there. We’d got to the point now where we had to risk being recognized. We walked along the road. deep noises of cows talking to each other. their breath steaming in the cold morning air. Spider. socks trodden into the filthy ground. my mind going over the night before. I kept belching. Jem. sticking a thumb out every time we heard a car behind us. There were bits of clothing all over the place. yeah. it’s getting light. no point. too. me with my arm reaching forward. Was it real? Was I different? Spider fell asleep again. then squirmed around getting my bra on underneath it. there was nothing to do but leave. It’ll be the end.
They hit the brakes when they saw us. yeah. in the middle. shrank away from me.” I wiped my chin with my sleeve. They were in posh uniforms — blazers. is it? Not cool. The kids were staring wide-eyed. The crime of being young. “I was just…hungry. eyes like saucers. folding it up so it all went in. hair pulled back into a ponytail. “Um…’scuse me…can I just…?” The boy. Spider just plowed ahead. and its horn blasted as it overtook her. I could see the driver as the car went past — a woman. I’d finished. I tried not to look them in the eye — I can’t stand that. we’ve just been hitching. She was absolutely terrified. then drove around us. kids?” He turned around. “Are you waiting for someone?” The voice was sharp. Into town.” You could tell now she was regretting her reckless impulse. “He’s eaten your toast!” He? “Oh. God. “This is really good of you.” Spider clapped his hand to his mouth. It’s cool. ad-libbing. Spider held his hand up. but not if you’re going to swear. he was a bit of a sight. I could see him. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I noticed the lady’s half-eaten bit of toast. Spider had closed the trunk and was up front now. I’m sorry. There were a couple of kids in the back. “Mummy. a bit angry. She’d put it down by the gear stick and forgotten about it. Put your bags in the back. Cool. sitting nearest to me. you know the sort of thing — and they were looking at me like I was some sort of alien.” he squealed. “Listen. Been walking for a couple of days. One of you will have to go in the back.” came her reaction. going to stay with my aunt. Nice car. “You’d better get in. “I’m going into town. quite polished. really. like she was accusing us of something.” The window went up again and the car set off. and the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I’m sorry. She’s in Bristol. I glanced at her. The salty butter made more saliva gush out. I can’t help you. Very good.” Spider and I exchanged glances. thanks. foulmouthed black dosser. After two days on our own. or where it might be. He just couldn’t stop. I clambered past him and settled in the middle. and a bit of toast held in her mouth like a beak. The woman looked at us — surprised. swiveled his legs to the side and leaned back into his seat. tight line. mouth open. To stop for us. I pulled open the back passenger door.” I said. This was all too much for the boy. maybe — then drove up to the junction and turned left out onto the road.” He was busking it now — neither of us knew if there was a town nearby. “Thanks. let alone a six-foot-four. Out of the corner of my eye.the corner.” . No offense. Got dropped by the main road. This time another car was coming up behind. early thirties maybe. Oh. I could have kept it in my mouth forever.” she said briskly. it’s cool.” As he was talking. She’d probably never even seen a black man. “Right. I wanted him to shut up. I guess you could find him intimidating at the best of times.” His head was nodding in appreciation. on the other side. lady. carefully. The crime of being strangers.” “How did you end up at Whiteways?” “Um. Ten feet along the road the car stopped again and reversed. It’s fucking freezing out there. reluctantly swallowed. “It’s very good of you. she stopped and reversed until she was level with us. Saliva jetted into my mouth. “Jesus. Quite possibly wetting herself. then sat back and crammed it straight into my mouth. and picked it up. I’m happy to give you a lift. wary. Alright. A few feet down. My.” “That’s all right. and ties. her mouth a thin. The little girl. Gets to me. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself — I leaned forward. flashing them a smile.” I thought I heard a little squeak from the girl. “It’s not cool to use those words.” I heard a sharp intake of breath from the boy. We don’t do that in this car.” I said. “Where are you heading?” My stomach flipped as I realized we hadn’t agreed on a story. then he opened the trunk and slung in the bags. not to sound too crazy. Spider nodded and took another drag. stretched my hand out. They looked like dolls strapped into that massive car. and some dribble ran down my chin as I chewed. I’m sorry. “We just need a lift. really appreciate it. Great. like their mum had lost her marbles. “Bitch. Freddy. shirts. we’d suddenly plunged back into the real world. but after a couple of days on the run and sleeping rough. It was cold and a bit soggy. Spider’s nerves were getting the better of him. “Never mind. Cool. The window came down. She looked at us doubtfully. The front passenger window went down and she took the toast out of her mouth and leaned across. The woman spoke very slowly. seeing kids’ numbers. “We’re heading to Bristol. would never do it again.
“That’s quite all right. We can’t hang about. I’ll drop you here. We’re nearly there. licking his lips. I know. Spider. do you think they knew who we were?” “Nah. who was holding himself so flat against his seat that he was almost twodimensional. all that stuff. What do you think?” We both knew we should stick to Plan A — go into a corner shop. quietly whimpering next to me.” I climbed out. “Mm. “Even a condemned man has a last meal. We got the bags out of the back and stood on the pavement as the car moved off into the traffic. would she?” With the traffic streaming past us.” “What do you mean?” “Oh. water. What had everyone been hearing about us? What had they seen on the TV or read in the papers? In one of those cars going past. and then find a shed or a garage or somewhere and have another picnic — but there was no way either of us could walk past that place. don’t he?” That big grin broke out again. and I swear a bit of drool trickled down his chin. We were on the outskirts of a town now. thanks.” He grabbed the bags and set off down the road. . “It’s all right. “Sod it.” he laughed. “And I think they thought you was a boy.” she said evenly.” “Spider. keeping an eye out for a corner shop or a little food shop or something. I was starting to feel more exposed than when we’d been walking across the fields. She pulled up at the side of the road. Spider had stopped. too.” I said. think we’ll be the last hitchhikers they ever pick up. Need their eyes tested. “We should find a shop and then disappear. cereal bars. “School’s off that way. when we saw a signboard on one side of the street: RITA’S CAFÉ — ALL-DAY BREAKFASTS COOKED TO ORDER. And there’s a station. really edgy. We’d been cut off from civilization for two days. Nearly there. to know there were shops and cafés only a few minutes away. buy some sandwiches. and he picked up our stuff and headed into Rita’s. I’m hungry. but. I had to jog to keep up. “That’s my girl. nothing. “I know we shouldn’t hang around. You’ve been very kind. thanks. long legs striding along. calling the police? I felt edgy. past Freddy. We’d got to the first few shops.” he said.” “Yeah. “How lucky was that?” Spider said. He was staring at the board. I could read his mind — I knew what he was going to say before he said it.” “Yeah. she wouldn’t have picked us up if she did. It’s only five minutes’ walk to the town center. Christ. children. The little girl started crying. Jem.” “Right. I can’t tell you how good it was to see houses. I don’t think we were their kind of people.” She didn’t need to say “Thank God” — we all knew she was thinking it. was someone reaching for their phone right now.
I’ve never been to Africa and seen a hyena ripping into the carcass of an antelope, but I bet it would be pretty similar to the sight of Spider devouring a cooked breakfast. He used his fork like a shovel, didn’t stop to breathe or anything like that, just continuously scooped it up and in, up and in. He looked up at me. I hadn’t even touched mine. “What’s up with you? You’re not telling me you’re not hungry.” A bubble of egg yolk oozed out of the corner of his mouth. “No, I’m just enjoying the sight of it — it’s awesome.” And it was. After all that time out in the wild, eating chips, cookies, and chocolate, it was almost too good to look at: a couple of plump sausages glistening with grease; the perfect fried egg, pure white and pure yellow; strips of bacon fried into crispy waves; a pool of beans, the juice slowly spreading across the plate. He snorted, and his egg bubble grew and turned into a drip. “You’re mental. Dig in.” He waved a fork in the direction of the woman behind the counter, who I guess was Rita, and called out, “Hey, could we get some French toast with this?” “Coming up!” she replied cheerily, clearly a woman who liked to see people enjoying her food. I cut the end off one of the sausages, let out an involuntary groan of satisfaction as the first mouthful hit home, and then steadily worked my way through the plateful. Rita waddled out from behind the counter, bringing a plate of French toast. She was one of those people who almost look wider than they are tall, her enormous chest — barely contained by a man’s checkered shirt — bulging out from behind her apron. Her legs were bare under a square-shaped denim skirt, and she had on fluffy slippers, the pink fake fur globbed together in places where the bacon fat had spattered. “Shall I top those off?” she asked, nodding at our mugs of tea. “Cheers,” said Spider, moving his mug nearer the edge of the table. She shuffled over to the counter and fetched the big silver-colored teapot. The brown liquid steamed as it arced into our mugs. The café was empty apart from us, and she didn’t seem in any hurry to get back behind the counter. “Been sleeping rough?” she asked. It wasn’t an accusation, just a friendly question, the way she said it. “Yeah,” we both said together. She eased herself down into a chair at the table opposite ours. “Do you need to phone anyone, kids? You can use the phone here, free of charge.” Spider rested his fork on the edge of the plate. “It’s OK. We’ve got mobiles.” I couldn’t help thinking of Val, perched on her stool in the kitchen, her ashtray piling up with cigarette butts, and the look in her eyes as we drove away. “If there’s someone, somewhere, waiting for news about you, you should give them a ring. Just let them know you’re OK. Take it from me, lovey. I know what it’s like to sit looking at that phone, willing it to ring. Breaks your heart, it does.” She wasn’t looking at Spider and me anymore; her eyes were directed at one of the pictures on the wall, but I could tell she wasn’t seeing it. She was somewhere else, somewhere painful. I kept quiet, pretended to be reading the newspaper that was lying on the table next to me. I didn’t want to hear anyone else’s sob story. Spider was too busy wiping a piece of French toast across his plate and posting it into his big gob to ask, but she took our silence as encouragement to go on. “Happened to me, you see. My Shaunie. We used to have spats — everyone does, don’t they? He used to go off for a few hours, come home when he’d cooled down. I never thought he’d leave for good.” Her face was shining damply, from the heat of the kitchen, maybe, or the effort of telling us about her son. She wiped her forehead with the bottom of her apron. “Anyway, that’s just what he did. We fell out one day, can’t even remember what it was about, and off he went. I wasn’t too bothered, thought he’d turn up later. I got his dinner ready and put it in the oven to keep it warm. It was still there the next morning, dried up and stuck to the plate. Shepherd’s pie and veggies. That’s what I’d cooked him. Always liked a bit of shepherd’s pie. I rang the police. They weren’t really concerned. Seventeen, you see. You can do what you like at seventeen. I rang his mates, all the places he might go. Nothing. He just disappeared. Never seen him again. I don’t know if he’s alive or dead.” Her voice wobbled, and she stopped talking and sat there taking deep breaths in and out. Embarrassed for her, I kept my eyes on the table, on that newspaper, and for the first time the words in the headline came into focus.
LONDON BOMBING — WHY DID THEY RUN?
And underneath, a grainy security camera picture of people standing in line in a shop. The camera must have been near the ceiling, because you were looking at them from above, couldn’t see their faces, except for one person who was glancing up, looking straight at the camera. It was me, of course. In that service station. On the front page of the paper. Spider had put the last piece of French toast down on his plate. “That’s terrible,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” Rita nodded, acknowledging his sympathy. “Here.” He held a grubby tissue out to her. “S’alright, I’ve got a hankie somewhere.” She dug in her apron pocket, fished out a big, white, man’s hankie, and blew her nose noisily. “Changes your life, something like that,” she said quietly. “You don’t like to go out, just in case the phone rings. You stop sleeping properly, always listening for that key in the lock. Think you’re going mad sometimes, when you see someone that looks just like him from the back, or hear someone behind you laughing just like he used to, and you turn ’round and it isn’t him.” Sweat was beading on her forehead again, and she lifted up her apron, completely covering her face for a second, and mopped it away. “You got someone, somewhere, going through what I’m going through — you give them a ring.” I could feel sweat prickling at my armpits and forehead as well, but for a different reason. Her words drifted over my head as I read the story beneath the headline: These are the first pictures of the two young delinquents seen running away from the London Eye minutes before
Tuesday’s terrorist bomb exploded. Police are stressing that at this time the two are considered key witnesses who may hold vital information about the terrorist attack. They have issued an urgent appeal for them to come forward.
Rita had stopped talking and was sitting, mangling her apron in her damp hands. Nobody spoke for a minute. “Thing is,” said Spider, “people can trace phone calls, can’t they?” “And you don’t want to be found.” Her eyes flicked between the two of us, not judging, and I thought that her Shaun must have been an idiot to leave a mum like that. I clocked her number. Fifteen, sixteen years to go. Would she see her son again, or would it be fifteen years of missed birthdays, lonely Christmases? I tried not to think about it — not my problem. “Tell you what. If you left a number, I could ring for you, after you’ve gone,” she said. “I could ring after a couple of hours, tomorrow if you like, just to let ’em know I’ve seen you and you’re doing OK.” Spider nodded. “Yeah, yeah, that’d be cool. Give us time to be on our way.” “I’ll get some paper and a pen.” Rita hauled herself back onto her feet. I leaned forward over the Formica table. “Are you crazy?” I hissed. “What?” “Giving her your nan’s number?” “Like she said, she can ring tomorrow, when we’re long gone. It’s sound.” I didn’t say anything, just pushed the paper across the table toward him. “What…?” he started to say, then he saw the picture. “Oh, shit.” We both looked toward the counter. Rita had her back to us, feeling around under a pile of paper for a pen. I tucked the newspaper into my coat, and, without speaking, we picked up our bags as quietly as we could and got up out of our chairs, trying not to scrape them on the floor. I looked back when I was by the door. Spider was still by the table. What the hell was he doing? He reached into his pocket and got a couple of fivers out of his envelope. For Christ’s sake, I wanted to scream, we haven’t got time for that! I eased down the door handle and pulled, praying that there wasn’t a bell about to betray us. It was OK, and I slipped out, Spider close behind me now. “Don’t run, Jem. Just walk. Keep it cool.” We were only a few feet away when we heard Rita’s voice coming out of the open door. “Where did…? Wait, come back!” We quickened the pace. “Don’t look back, Jem. Just keep going.”
I didn’t need to look back. In my mind’s eye, I could see her standing in the doorway for a while, watching us disappear, then turning back, picking up the five-pound bills, and holding them in her damp hand as she sank down into a chair. Breathing heavily in and out, thinking of us, thinking of Shaun…until she realized the newspaper was gone, put two and two together, and reached for the phone.
and there they were again: people’s numbers. loads of porno ones. run. The reason was walking beside me. I grabbed stuff as quickly as I could: a few chocolate bars and bags of chips again. and my ankles kept twisting on the uneven path. away from us. newspapers and magazines. You could tell he was watching me. It was blue and crawling with tattoos. it’s not contagious. and he grabbed my free hand in his. Not a trap after all. There may have been a few people walking or driving along who were lost in their own thoughts. our bags were catching on the wall and the railing. where some white guy goes into an African village and the kids rush up to him. one ridiculously tall. like his vocal cords had been shredded by fifty years of smoking. It was packed from floor to ceiling with snacks and drinks. I wanted to walk around with my eyes closed. cereal bars. It was so narrow in there. For the first time in my life. not paying us any attention. read newspapers. Only four days to go. like he was going to barge straight through me. “Listen. to blot the numbers out. heavy steps on the crunching gravel. He put the stuff in a couple of bags. Halfway along. There were cigarettes behind him. “You forgot your change. Even in a sleepy little market town in the middle of nowhere there were hundreds of people out and about: people who watched the news. and then I spotted something else: three or four flashlights huddled together on the shelf. though. I looked over my shoulder. curved wall on one side. I could hear Tattoo Face behind me. The guy behind the counter was reading a newspaper as I went ’round choosing. The date on the paper — December 11 — was like a slap in the face. holding my hand. I had someone I wanted to keep hold of. A figure appeared at the end I was heading toward: a big. “Run. I put the stuff on the counter. He took the money. just a bloke walking along the canal. They looked at us and looked away. As he got nearer. didn’t question me. Spider let go of my hand. fruit juice. run!” He caught the terror in my voice. And I thought. expecting to see someone behind us. and we ran. My picture on the front page of the paper told a different story. I’d started to think we were just getting paranoid. “Come on. handing me their death sentences. so I asked for half a dozen packs. I started to really lose my nerve. no one to hear you scream. squeezed in between an antiques shop and a greengrocer’s. went on the Internet. I wasn’t sure he’d even seen me. watching as I fumbled with the money. We followed it along for a bit.” he said. “Ta. his features blotted out. Except no one was rushing up to us. I’ll be right behind you.” We ducked into a side alley between two shops. He knows. He was silhouetted against the disk of light at the other end. that it was all in our heads. Outside on the street. and the batteries to go with them.” He wasn’t kidding. Telling me stuff about strangers. I swiveled around. We’re too obvious here. coming toward us on the sidewalk.CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE The town’s High Street was full of police informers. but everyone else was clocking us. glanced up quickly and then made her kid walk on the other side of her. I guess we were a pretty odd sight: two scruffy kids. And I guess my hunch in the car had been right: Most of them didn’t see a black man from one year to the next. Spider. Then.” he said in a gravelly voice. “Here…” And I knew the game was up. then out onto a canal towpath.” he said urgently. a railing on the other to stop you from falling into the canal. just turned. that’s why I can’t see much of his face in here. . “You go ahead. I bought two. The path was narrow— a damp. I thought as I stood there. Another thing was bothering me. The store. One woman. Spider unwrapped some ten-pound notes from his wad of money and sent me in. It was OK. They were all out to get us. We found a convenience store. It was like a little bit of London parachuted into the middle of nowhere. cold. this need to run and hide. It was like one of those programs on TV. and a train rattled past beyond it. We came to a tunnel.” It was difficult to see where you were treading. While we’d been isolated in the country. the way behind me was clear apart from Spider. smelled stale. behind houses and past some vacant lots. “Hey. He’s black. the other looking like a midget beside him. it felt like it wouldn’t be long now. I gave Spider one of the bags to carry. as I turned to leave. Try as I might not to meet people’s eyes. you stuck-up cow. I didn’t want to be reminded that everyone around me was going to die. whatever we’ve got. could he? I kept walking. too — it was a perfect place to trap someone — nowhere to go. Spider! Run. touching his white skin and feeling his hair. I turned ’round. Every passerby was a pair of eyes and a mobile phone. “We’d better buy some supplies quickly and then find somewhere to disappear. and I saw with lurching horror that his face wasn’t black — it was blue. It was real. yeah. What was he going to do to us? An old git like that couldn’t stop me. Then he got within twenty feet or so. but also some sensible stuff this time — water. dark shape blotting out most of the light. I thought. breath rasping in and out of his lungs. Sod you. I couldn’t avoid them all. There were certainly no other black faces around today. run. A wall sprang up on the other side of me. We came toward each other in the dark. Walking along the road. he called out. “Let’s get out of here. He knows. only in reverse — you know. It twisted and turned.” I went back and took it from him silently. you!” he shouted louder. he just kept coming toward me in the middle of the path.
kids. “OK?” I nodded. really fast. nice and civilized-like. filling my ears with the sound of high-speed metal. It’s nothing like that. Spider and I had stopped running. terraced houses one side. “Help! Help us! Call the police! Help us!” There was no reaction. I tried to follow at a run. Would he? I started yelling. No need to make a scene of ourselves. that’s all. Today. Either the houses were empty or people. and I drew level with him. “What you doing? Shut up! We don’t want the police. The same date as the newspaper I’d picked up earlier. “No.” He was walking toward us now. Then. turned the TV up a bit louder. hands on his thighs. He was right behind us. that’s all. twisting my knee.” he said. but it was agony. What did it mean? Whatever was going to happen next. “What do you want?” Spider called out to him. a train passed underneath us. I saw his number. A middle-aged bloke. Tattoo Face stopped and turned toward him. but he could shift. “Do I need to call the police?” Tattoo Face smiled. I could hear the guy grunting. “I just want a nice little chat. just sank deeper down into their sofas. held up both his hands. Spider wheeled around. holding a big dog by its collar. feeding off the main one.” And so.” I dropped what I had and he let me get past. We’ll sort it out. My son here’s in a spot of trouble. but he kept his eyes on us the whole time. I didn’t know about me. he was bearing down on us like a bulldozer. Then.” While they were talking. Something a friend of mine wants back. but not by much. The bridge opened onto a street. trampling plastic and cans under his feet. mate. He was a big bugger. puffing and blowing. I just need to help him sort it out. We booked down the street. not wanting to admit how much it hurt.” He flung it across the top of the spiked railings to our left. and almost flung me over. and Tattoo Face wouldn’t. We’d slowed him down with the bags. “We can talk about it. too. must’ve been an express. 12112010. slowly. bent forward but looking up at us. but as we started to go down the steps on the other side. someone opened a door. and set off. The big guy had stopped running. to his right. “What you doing?” “Here. because it blasted through. not sure what to do. then cupped his hands for me to put my foot into. I’d seen it before. “Nothing. Of course. Come on!” “He’s going to kill us.Spider slowed for a second. “What’s going on? “ he shouted out.” The money. It masked the noise of Tattoo Face’s footsteps. crouched on the top. we edged down the street. Even as I ran. railway the other. We just need to get away. I dropped down on all fours and sort of scuttled along. Four days before Spider. scrambling down the embankment. “Come on. Of course. “Ditch the bags. slowly. screaming as I ran. “Oi!” He was after us again.” I looked back over my shoulder. Spider! We need help!” Did a curtain twitch? Was somebody watching us now? “I’m not going to kill you!” Tattoo Face’s voice rang out along the street. Maybe Spider would be the only one to walk away…. It led to a railway bridge: grim black riveted metal covered in graffiti. He was standing in the middle of the street. Bit of a domestic. then. There wasn’t just adrenaline running through me now — this buzz. don’t you? Kids!” The guy looked at him. He was struggling to get his breath. We ran down a rough slope until we reached another path. “You know what I want. Spider looked back. You know what it’s like. taking some of the weight on my hands. and then jumped down. As we hurtled across the bridge. We were out into the open air now. “Here!” Spider grabbed my arm and hauled me off to the left. I could feel the vibration of the bridge as he thundered across. and when I looked over my shoulder. straight at Tattoo Face. but I couldn’t help it. Houses meant people — surely he wouldn’t kill us in front of witnesses. but we’d got a good start now. You’ve got something that doesn’t belong to you. as they seemed to be ending their conversation. shot through my veins like the first hit of the most powerful drug in the world. at the party. legs pumping away like mad. we turned and started to run again. hearing the noise. this awareness. I could hear the blood thudding in my ears as he kept on coming. Spider pulled himself up the other side. fast. He grabbed his jacket off the top and helped me up. “Come on!” We clattered up the steps. I didn’t want to look behind. Jem. Spider was ripping off his jacket. Spider leaned down and whispered. . Spider would get out of it alive. belting back along the towpath the way we’d come only a few minutes before. then he threw the bags he was carrying back down the tunnel. “Back away. I landed awkwardly. We both faced him in the street and then looked at each other. trying to suss him out. Leave them there.
“What the hell are you doing?” He was down at the bottom of the slope now, by the side of the track. “I’ve hurt myself. My knee,” I said, wincing as I tried to stand up on it. “Why didn’t you say?” He started back up toward me, but I heard a thump behind. Tattoo Face was over the fence. Panicking now, I scrambled toward Spider. He lunged forward at the same time as I was literally lifted into the air, scooped up by a big muscled arm wrapped ’round my waist. There was something cold and hard against my throat. That bastard had pulled a knife. Spider tumbled forward, then froze, like a sprinter waiting for the gun. “No, no, man. There’s no need for that. Put the knife away. Come on, we can talk. We can talk about this.” “We don’t need to talk anymore. You need to give me the money, and I’ll let your little friend go.” Spider got to his feet. Tattoo Face tightened his grip on me. I could hardly breathe. To be honest, I’d been so surprised when he’d grabbed me that I’d just hung there like a doll; now I struggled in his arms, until he dug the blade farther into my neck. “Don’t come any nearer.” “No, no, it’s cool.” Spider backed away. He was down on the tracks again. “Spider, just give him the money.” My voice didn’t sound like mine. He looked at me for a second, his face a picture of agony. “I can’t, Jem. This is our future. You and me. This is a hotel room and a big double bed. It’s a pint or two in the pub, and fish and chips on the pier. How can we have that, how can we have all that, without any money?” I had a big lump in my throat. He’d got this all in his head, what he wanted for us. Christ, it wasn’t much, was it? But we’d never have it. We’d never have even that. I started to cry. They were hot tears of frustration and longing, tears of hatred for the ticking clock. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen. I never meant for you to get scared. You’re right, Jem. It’s only money. We’ll get some more. Let her go,” he said to Tattoo Face, “and you can have your money.” “Yeah, right, soft lad. I wasn’t born yesterday. Give me the money and I’ll let her go.” “We’ll do it together, yeah?” “No, you’ll give me the money,” Tattoo Face said evenly, “and then I’ll let her go.” Knowing Spider, I knew what was coming next. I could see it all in my head in slow motion, but Tattoo Face couldn’t. He let out a great cry of dismay as Spider got the money out of the envelope, took the rubber band off, drew his hand way back, and then flung it up and forward, launching the roll into the sky. Tattoo Face’s grip slackened. He dropped the knife, dropped me, and hurtled down the embankment to the railway track. I ran toward Spider and we met halfway. He gathered me into him, pressing me into his chest, clutching at my hair. “It’s alright. I’ve got you. I’ve got you, Jem.” His voice was thick, he wasn’t far from tears himself. “Let’s get out of here. Leave him to it.” The air was full of money. The pound notes were still falling all around us as we picked our way up the embankment. I looked back at Tattoo Face, bent over, picking up note after note. You could tell he was mad, really mad, muttering to himself as he puffed and panted his way along, facedown. Spider had both arms around me. When we got to the top of the slope, he helped me over the fence again. I waited for him to join me, but he was standing there, one hand on the railings. “Come on, let’s get away from here,” I said. He looked over his shoulder. I groaned. “No, please, leave it. It’s only money.” “Just a hundred quid, Jem. Think what we could do with a hundred.” I reached through the railings and grabbed his sleeve. “Spider, don’t.” He unwound my fingers and kissed them. “I’ll be back in one minute,” he said and started back down the slope. “Spider, no! No!” I screamed. He was down on the tracks now. Tattoo Face looked up at him. “Come back for more, have you?”
“I just want a little bit. My cut — it’s mine, anyway.” “You’re not having any, you little shit. You go back to your girlfriend, right now, or I’ll give you a good hiding.” Spider squared up to him. “I’m not frightened of you.” “Funny, that’s what your gran said when I paid her a visit.” “You what?” “I just wanted to know where you were. Bit of information. She wasn’t very cooperative, your gran. Gave me a bit of lip, just like you. Still, she wasn’t saying anything by the time I left her….” “You bastard! What have you done to her?” Spider launched himself straight at him, charging head down into his stomach. He knocked Tattoo Face off his feet, and they rolled together down the embankment onto the tracks. They were tumbling around, wrestling and landing real punches on each other with the sickening noise of flesh slamming into flesh. Behind their animal grunts and groans, there was other noise building up in the background: the rumbling of a distant train, and sirens, lots of them, getting nearer and nearer. “Spider!” I screamed. “Just get away from him! Get away!” I don’t know if he heard me. Suddenly, there was so much happening at once. Two police cars and a van swung into the road, screeched to a halt, and spewed out teams of uniforms. They swarmed over the fence. Two feet down the track, a train came into view, rattling along blindly. “Spider, get out now!” My voice was impossibly thin against the chaos around me. He didn’t hear, or he wasn’t listening. I couldn’t watch. I turned away and sank down to the ground, knees hugged in, eyes tight shut. All around me people were shouting and screaming. There was an earsplitting squeal as the driver of the train rammed on the brakes. It seemed to go on for hours. I waited until the noise stopped. I would have to look: I needed to know. I tried to make myself breathe — three breaths in, three breaths out — before I turned around. Through the railings, I could see the train. It had ground to a halt with the last car level with where I sat. The police had Tattoo Face in an armlock. He was still putting up a fight, even with three of them trying to get him under control. There was no sign of Spider — without wanting to, my eyes scanned along the track under the train. The police were obviously thinking the same as me — some of them were walking along beside the end cars, peering underneath. My mouth was dry. “Oh, please, no,” I breathed to myself. There was movement on the far embankment, something scuttling from bush to bush. I thought it was an animal at first, then glimpsed it again. It was a person on hands and knees: It was Spider. He was making his way up the slope and away to the right. When the bushes ran out, he got down on his stomach and crawled on his elbows. I got to my feet and started walking along the road in the same direction. I was limping, but I didn’t notice the pain. I kept my eyes on Spider, and soon enough I caught him looking over toward me. I gave him the thumbs-up and he mirrored me. At the top of the embankment now, he scrambled to his feet and vaulted over the fence. Below him, someone shouted out, “Oi! That’s the other one! Stop him!” Spider broke into a run and I did, too — well, as much of a run as I could manage. We ran parallel to each other for a while, and then he disappeared from view, hidden by a wooden fence. We caught up with each other at a road bridge a few hundred feet farther on. He grabbed my hand, and we went for it, blindly running wherever our legs took us.
We had nothing to carry anymore, nothing to slow us down, and adrenaline was surging through us again. After a few twists and turns, we found our way into a park. This was better: only a few people around, a couple of old ladies with their dogs. We walked along the paths, looking for somewhere to hide. Spider kept sending me into gaps in the bushes. “Go in there and have a look.” “You do it!” “Don’t be like that. You’re smaller than me. Go and check it out.” I got ready to squeeze my way in, moving the branches out of my face. “People like you sent people like me up chimneys a hundred years ago. Just ‘cause I’m small,” I called behind me. “No, mate, people like that woman who gave us a lift would have had us both cleaning her house, or polishing her shoes, or wiping her arse. ’Specially me. I’d have been someone’s slave.” Point taken. That opening was no good, but we found one a couple of minutes later. If you bent down and ducked under the bushes with thick rubbery leaves, there was a space behind, next to an old wall. It was big enough for us both to sit down and the ground was dry. No one could see us. We would be alright here for a bit. We sat down next to each other, our backs leaning against the wall. The instant my butt hit the ground, all the strength went out of me. I was so, so tired. I closed my eyes. “Ciggy?” “No. Nothing.” I didn’t want to think, or feel, or see things anymore. I didn’t want to run or to hide. “You alright?” His voice came to me through a thick fog. I’d nearly fallen asleep, just in that instant. I opened my eyes. “I’m just tired.” He put his arm ’round me, pulled me in toward him. “Did you hear what that bastard said?” “About your nan?” “Yeah. I should’ve killed him, Jem, while I had the chance. I was so mad, I just went for him. I forgot about my blade — should’ve pulled that and finished him there and then.” “What good would that have done? Killing him? It would’ve just meant more trouble for you.” “I don’t care. He don’t deserve nothing different for what he done. He had no right…” “I know. But I’m glad you didn’t. Anyway, he—” I was going to say, Anyway, he’s going to die today, but I stopped myself just in time. Surely, if Tattoo Face was going to die, it would have happened; Spider would’ve knifed him, or he would have split his head open on the rail when they were wrestling, or the train would’ve hit him. I was certain I’d seen his number, certain it was today. I didn’t get it. I wasn’t sure anymore — were the numbers just in my head or were they real? If I’d just made them up, that was cool — I could ignore them, try to change them, whatever. I could stop the clock ticking Spider’s life away. If they were real, though, that meant Spider’s nan was OK — she had years to go. It was getting all muddled up in my head. Whatever the truth of it, though, there was one way I could comfort Spider. “I think she’ll be OK, your nan.” “Really? I don’t even know if she’s still alive.” I turned around to face him. “Spider, I know she’ll be OK.” “Because of her number?” “Yeah.” “But what if you’re not the only one to see numbers? What if someone else sees completely different ones? What if her number’s changed?” “They don’t.” I hesitated, checking Spider’s number again — yeah, it was still there, still the same. “They don’t change.” “So, the date we’ll die is set from the minute we’re born. Is that what you’re saying?” He was starting to piss me off now. I was trying to make him feel better, and he was giving me the third degree. Questions I didn’t have answers for.
I felt cold inside. “What are we gonna do at Weston.” “P’raps that’s how it is. Nothing means anything. and in our leafy cave I could only see Spider as a vague shape now. You’ve got lovely hands. but he was like a dog with a bone. That’s not right. He was well worked up. burying his face in my shoulder. That’s it. side by side. It’s like it don’t matter what I do because the end will be the same. you are. “You’re the one saying it all. relief. Without saying a word he unwound his arms from around his ribcage and wrapped them around my waist. I wanted to take his distress away. “We need to get out of here. I moved my hands up to his face. Kneeling there. It was getting dark. and police and sniffer dogs and —” He put one of his long fingers up to my lips.” I took a deep breath. miserable. He seemed bigger than ever in this confined space. either. “OK. You’re born. I know. but I couldn’t.” My philosophy in a nutshell. Jem. and put my hands on both his shoulders. facing him. “I know you’re tired. “Why not?” “It’s not all random. Jem.” He started to crawl out . the tears said it for us — terror. I gently took hold of the hand that was shushing me and laid it on my open left palm. Things happen. It can’t be. I won’t be long. love. Later. That’s not right.” “Yeah.“I’m not saying anything.” Spider said. We must be bloody close now.” I had no energy left. so you stay here and be ready to run when I come back for you.” “But I want you to say it. listen. you live. backs against the wall. we disentangled ourselves and sat up. all mixed into the salt. I held him to me. both of us with our arms folded. “The best way to get out of here fast is to get another car. “Because I was meant to meet you. “Spider. My hand was hurting. Spider was shaking his head back and forth — it made his whole body move. “What I said. but it would be so easy just to curl up here in Spider’s arms and wait for the inevitable. and stroked him.” He was raising his voice now. his eyes haunted and sad.” He couldn’t hear me. is it? That can’t be right.” “What?” “How everything is fixed for us. There were no words to say what we were feeling. It felt like my fault. Perhaps he did. The words crept out of me like quiet little mice.” “What?” “Nothing makes any sense. caught up in his own dark. too. We’re gonna eat ice cream and fish and chips and walk along the pier. his shoulder joggling into mine.” He leaned across and kissed me tenderly. “That’s what I’m saying. and we cried together. His face was still and he looked up at me. I really did. Maybe I’m wrong. I sat up on my knees. He was out of his mind with worry.” “You’re soft in the head. Spider? They’ve got TV and newspapers there.” “That bomb was meant to go off. I wanted to reach him.” Even in the dark. I could tell he was smiling again. his back and his hair. He’d taken his arm away from me and was waving it around. don’t worry. slowing but not stopping his movement. He was still shaking away. We sat. like his mind was suddenly made up. I wanted to feel it with him. my knee was hurting.” I was scared of what I was about to say. That shut him up for a while.” At last he was listening.” I wanted him to stop it. you die. “So everything’s preset? It’s all meant to be?” “I dunno. “I told you. “’Course it’s not right. “We couldn’t have brought more attention to ourselves if we’d bloody tried earlier on. ‘cause it doesn’t make any sense to me. softly tracing along his bony fingers with my other hand. Knowing.” A bit of his spit hit my face. and grief. You’ll love it. mad world. “What you doing?” “Nothing.” I couldn’t keep the irritation out of my voice.” he said. held him firmly.” “It don’t make any sense. it was disturbing to see him so agitated. I didn’t want to be found. how still he could be when he was happy and relaxed. much later. you know. “Spider. I’ll find us some wheels. scared.” His eyes filled with tears.” “And then what?” “Drive to Weston. That bastard was meant to beat up my nan.” He was saying it like he believed it. and you were meant to meet me. But while I was still. as I did now.
and waited. . “Spider. And I sat in the gathering dark. Be ready. the branches swishing for a minute where he’d pushed his way through. I watched as their movement slowed and stopped.from under the branches.” “What?” “Be careful.” “’Course. OK? I’ll only be a few minutes.” And he was gone.
I didn’t feel shock. the sound of those tossers’ voices. In the background.” “OK. It started far enough away. I was waiting for his footsteps. when they took him to the station. a foot or two from my face. It felt like I was going to explode. Somebody was going through the bushes with something. A stick — they were poking around with sticks. I’d learned to rely on him.” I straightened out my body and tried to flatten myself against the wall. I kept my mouth shut and breathed out through my nose. pinned to the ground. or relatively. I didn’t move or make a sound. More than that. My mind was still panicking. Those two. I swallowed hard. the other won’t be far away. almost in a trance. do they? Better if they’re not. a couple of sirens. but who was to say there weren’t more like them? I knew that this place was safe. wrapped around me — but the wounded Spider. I could hear them moving farther away. The air inside me. I held both hands up to my face. Beams moving this way and that. Run it along the ground. But if I pictured him now. I saw him bruised. though. ever since we agreed to cut and run. Let’s face it: He’d done most of the thinking. tracing a semicircle. or close to me. arms and legs flying everywhere. with their sticks. I didn’t want to think of him like that — I wanted to see him loping across endless fields. I was cold and wet. is it?” “Do you think he is? A terrorist? Kid like that?” “Could be. I sat up slowly. I can’t say I relaxed. Because I hadn’t seen it. the captured and confined Spider. I was alone now. The slapping sound of the branches and leaves being hit was only a few feet away. How long was it until I realized he wasn’t coming back? I don’t know. but you don’t always think straight when you’re backed into a corner. these days. My own breath warmed my face as I whispered over and over. but swished toward me. curled up in the corner of a cell. “We’ll search this park.CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE I sat there. curled up in the dirt. The stick passed within an inch of me before moving away again. Something had happened to him. The voices were getting nearer. was squashed further by my stomach. Suddenly. but it was nothing against the smacking of the leaves. “Got one of them. do you?” That was it. it was like something even darker than the night all around. my God. in me. It sounded like a nuclear bomb to me.” The stick came back in. had only lasted for three days. There were lights.” “Righto. Get them young. might have gone. hugging my knees. not then. settling on me. Ten minutes turned to twenty. I held my breath — stupid thing to do. these blacks. I could wait here for as long as I needed to. Oh. unable to stop a little explosion of snot. but it felt like I’d always been with him. I must have gone to sleep. trying to control it. then move on to the scrubland by Manor Road School. We’d packed the amount of living most people do in a lifetime into those days. I tried to think what he would want me to do. but gradually it seeped through me like the freezing rain that had started soaking down from the leaves above and up from the ground below. I saw him fighting. then. for the leaves to rustle. As time went on I started to get glued into my position — hunched up. covering my nose and mouth. already under pressure. Spider and I. But what was I waiting for? Spider wasn’t coming back. the decision-making. trying to suspend everything until Spider came back for me. even now trying not to make any noise. My whispered words filled my ears. listening hard. my God. and another sound. showering me with the water from the leaves.” I had no idea what to do — I was too scared to cry. I could feel stuff rising up into my throat. for a whispered instruction. curled into a ball. They missed it. but suddenly I was aware of other voices filtering through. backward and forward. because at one point I woke up lying on the ground with one thought in my head: He’s gone. I saw him being held down. a chill going right through to my bones. too. “Go under. the odd shout far away. wouldn’t stay out of my . a swishing and flicking noise. What the hell was going on? Where was he? Two minutes turned to ten. really alone. You don’t know what’s going on with them.” “Not often you catch a terrorist. something ripped through the bushes.” “Don’t need to be bright. with every bit of me ready to jump up and run. too. I made myself breathe slowly. only rocking a little. I was going to have to think for myself now. each noise was heavy with significance — the hum of traffic. don’t they?” “He didn’t look very bright to me. sweeping along the surface of the ground. I just kept on sitting there. “Oh. I sucked in my stomach as far as I could. He was locked up in a cell somewhere. our adventure. Fill their head with stuff. but my breathing got easier. they’ll believe anything.
no dogs barking. After the exhaustion and despair. Somehow. trying not to think about all the dogs that must have peed there over the years. Was I just imagining it. and I’d hold on to the hope that I’d see him there. clinging to the leaves? “Good-bye. no helicopters. I didn’t know how. trying to picture myself crawling out into a dark. the last place we’d been together. the swings and slide in the kiddies’ playground were just ghostly shapes on the other side of the grass. The coast was clear. I waited until I couldn’t hear anything above the background buzz of traffic — no footsteps. Spider. but I did know when — before the fifteenth. He’d spoken of Weston like some holy grail. I was anticipating the moment when I’d emerge from the bushes. he’d know that’s what I was doing. we’d be together again.” . before the end. and he’d meet me there. I crept forward on my hands and knees. or could I still smell his rankness. “I’ll see you in Weston. It was no good. part of me was shit-scared. sticking my face out gently between the leaves. It was too dark to see much.” I said quietly.head. empty park. in my head. It felt sad leaving our hideout. The way to keep faith with him was to carry on our journey. He believed in it — he believed there’d be happy times for us both there. And if he believed it. Part of me really wanted to get on with it. I felt an edginess kick back into me. I’d carry on. but I hesitated for a minute. I’d go mad if I stayed here. and keep moving. I was going to have to move. no deep voices. so would I.
” I added. these girls were heading for comfortable lives. “And?” Give them a bit of attitude. looking out for danger. I would have started running. but now I stood my ground. “And I reckon he’ll be earning good overtime. looking me up and down.” “Do you often feel things. thinking of her dad. three kids emerging from the gloom. . a bit. “I don’t think you are. Kids like me. jeans and hoodies. Spider’s and mine. I didn’t even notice the figures coming across the wet grass until it was way too late. When I thought about it. we’ll cut down the back to mine.” “And it did. I’ve got an idea.” “Not really.” “Hang on. “But you ran away from the bomb. I’m not.” the first one spoke again. including my dad. I could see them now. anyway?” “S’posed to be heading west. “Oi! There’s a lot of people looking for you. “None taken. maybe even a husband and two-point-four children.” It was a compliment. Where you goin’.” “So you know whether we’re going to turn you in or not?” I hesitated for a second or two. Not through the town center. I wasn’t going to beg. with the sort of accent you only hear on TV. I could hit him up for a few extra quid this week. intended to flatter. nothing more. female.” She almost smiled.” The other two looked at her like she was mad. What things?” I didn’t have the energy to lie. They all had another sixty. with nose studs and lip rings.” I didn’t want to say Weston — that was our secret. like a yokel in a sitcom. “Did you do it?” “ ’Course not. Their numbers came up. “You’re not going to last five minutes goin’ up that way.” a voice called out to the left of me.CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR I hurried as fast as I could along the path. “On the bus?” “Walking. “You don’t look like a terrorist. No offense. though. It was young.” “What are you runnin’ away from. sort of. I didn’t know if I was or wasn’t. back toward the town center.” The other two laughed. They walked up to me. Bristol way.” A pause. Come on. Two more girls. seventy years — the piercings a sign of middle-class rebellion. don’t show them any fear. Maybe before.” I said evenly. about my age. my last real meal had been breakfast. It worked.” “Walking! Get out! Are you hungry?” My eating pattern had been so odd.” “Yeah. or at least hunched my shoulders. of course. then?” “Don’t like the cops.” “Yeah. I was peering into the darkness ahead of me. what’s going to happen. stared down. just one of those things. I stopped in my tracks and turned to face whoever it was. “It just…I just…I felt something bad was going to happen. Too many people. “No. You’re right there. “Why shouldn’t we?” “You don’t look like a snitch. “Yeah. and that seemed like years ago. like?” “Yeah. you know. looked right back at them.
I nibbled a little bit off the end of the slice. After about a decade of sitting in silence.” “Yeah. they know I’ll kill them if they don’t keep quiet. Inside. It was like how you’d imagine teenage kids to be. I didn’t know whether to trust her or not. That’s not such a good idea. I took off the green coat.” I said. They were pretty wary of me. is it?” one of them said. Don’t say nothing to nobody. whatever. or the beanbag. “Britney. She was tucking in. We sat there. suit yourselves. then. Come on. Foo Fighters. and we all caught up with her. but I was still uncomfortable. and I was too tired to care. with the others following me.” I perched awkwardly on the edge of the bed. see ya. you’re crazy. But we weren’t just hanging out. but still with the same big grin on his face. They wouldn’t dare.” She cut off any further discussion by turning around suddenly and starting to walk back across the grass. We were sitting there. “’Course. so I ate the rest of the slice and picked up another one.” “See you tomorrow. in silence. in the other he was bald. It was fine. which was black and fluffy. and I was pretty sure I was smelling rank. “Come on!” she hissed. “Just cheese and tomato. leaving me on my own. was there? The central heating was stifling after a few days in the open.” We went ’round the side of the house and in through the back door. there was a real dressing table with makeup and jewelry stands on it. A little plaque on the bedroom door had a border of roses and the words BRITNEY’S ROOM in the middle. Underneath she was as worried as the rest of them. sitting in someone’s bedroom eating pizza and drinking Coke. she found some music to put on and then decided to fix some food. The three of us left behind didn’t have anything to say to each other. with a big pizza on a plate and a bottle of Coke and a couple of glasses. I stripped off my hoodie and dropped it on top of the coat on the floor. She held a plate toward me.” “You’re bailing on me?” They nodded. “I’m Britney and you’re…Jemma?” “Jem. my few bits and pieces all smashed up. Anyway. making me think the front she’d shown out in the park was just that. “Right. Last place they’re going to look.” said Britney. it settled in my stomach and stayed there. So I asked her. really. looking down.” “But they won’t. “It’s OK.“Wait a minute. and swallowed. We’ll go in the back way. not sure if I could actually eat or not. “I’ll just go in and check what’s goin’ on. into her room. she stopped. They were filthy and. “Can you trust them?” I asked. “So. “Alright. Gallows. younger than her — in one of them he had thick.” “Of course not. and framed photos all over the place: pictures of family and pets. talking about boys and makeup. but I didn’t really have another option. I was starting to sweat. As well as all the posters.” Now that she’d got me there. We’re going home. The smell of the food made me feel hungry and sick at the same time. Wait here. they looked disgusting. then straight through the kitchen and upstairs.” I took a slice. looking at me and trying not to look at the same time. But listen. chewed it slowly. I set off after her. Lying in a forlorn heap on the rug. The bed had loads of pillows on it and a sort of blanket. Britney came back into the room. she was pretty nervous. both aware of the silence. It was bizarre. cheers. “Dad’s still out and Mum’s glued to the telly. a front. I thought of my last room. It’ll be cool. Britney sat next to me. trying to think of something to say. “Shut up — it’s a great idea. They’re sound. “Why are you doing this? Being nice to me?” . Underneath were more recent additions: a skull and crossbones. We walked along quickly. It was all pretty cool. eating and drinking. like a turd on a carpet. “You can sit on the bed. and there were posters and pictures cut out from magazines all over them — Kurt Cobain. straight-out. Eventually. curly hair.” “But you’d be in a shed load of trouble if they did…. In the back of my mind. She led us down back alleys and footpaths. In fact. at Karen’s. between garden fences and alongside playing fields. that alright?” “Yeah.” They trooped off down the street. I sat there and looked around. It was a proper girl’s room. too. I felt really out of place.” She’d returned. she didn’t look quite so tough. there was still the fear that it could all be a trap. There were a couple of her with a boy. I mean it — nobody.” And she disappeared ’round a corner. so were my jeans and shoes.” The other two looked at each other. Even though Britney’s room wasn’t exactly tidy. a big sign saying KEEP OUT. So there was a brother somewhere. the walls were painted dark purple.
and started trying to remove the mess from all that fake fur. then stepped into the shower. “I’ve never met a celebrity before. The room was filling with steam.” I looked at her. but you could still see where I’d thrown up. When Britney reappeared with a bucket and sponge. so was I. Soft. you might have seen stuff. “Here. I closed the door and quickly dried off and got dressed. I reached blindly for the nearest bottle of shampoo and poured a handful. Famous. but I didn’t recognize her. inside me. pizza and Coke on her fluffy black cover. why don’t you take a shower while I do this? Don’t worry about the noise. but wearable. I gathered up my old things and the towel and padded along the hallway back into Britney’s room. I should go. Feeling better?” “Yeah.” I mumbled.” I whispered. breathing in some cool night air. God.” “A celebrity?” I said. but they don’t know that. pictures. “S’alright. I’ll get you some clean clothes. warm water rained down on me. do they? Even if you didn’t do anything.” “You won’t be able to see anything. There was someone in there looking back at me. I could feel myself getting cleaner. “It’s OK. I’d been carrying the smell of Spider with me. no wonder I never got asked anywhere. soaking wet. big rings under her eyes. Mum’s show ends in ten minutes. on my skin. She was horrified. “Don’t take too long. I wiped a hand towel over the mirror above the sink.She put her pizza down on the plate. and to be honest. including a big thick towel. lie down. You could be a witness.” I said again.” “I was thinking.” I lay down. “Sorry. the sort of thing I’d wear anyway. Mum’ll just think it’s me. “I’m sorry. rubbing foam into my scalp and all over my body. I’ll get something to clean it up. The clothes were great. I scrubbed under my arms. I slid back the bolt and opened the door a fraction. All that was spiraling down into the drain. “What do you mean?” “Well. “I feel a bit dizzy. I sat up straight.” She showed me where the bathroom was and started the shower running. There was a gentle tap on the door. before we slept out in the woods. I wrapped the clean towel around me like a dress and then bent and toweled my head dry with the end of it. the best thing would be for you to get some sleep here and leave when it gets light. maybe twenty-five. I leaned against the window frame. before we walked for miles. The whole country is. maybe not a celebrity. Well. that’s what you are. She’d been kinder to me than I had any right to expect. Our faces were surprisingly close together. She’d done the best job she could of cleaning up.” She disappeared again. before we found that barn… “You alright? You’ve turned a right funny color. Set off early — you can leave a couple of hours before anyone’s up. I’m washing him away. and felt sad. anyway. I’m so sorry. turned my face up into the flow. I took the sponge from her hand. while I got up and opened a window to try and let the smell out. Britain’s Most Wanted.” “I’m just a kid. and now I’d wrecked her bedroom. I breathed in the steam. the room was starting to swim around. sightings. “Did you see anything?” I thought back to that afternoon. “I’ll be out in a minute.” She took another bite of pizza. It seemed like a year ago.” Britney shot out of the room. but that was worse. looked about twenty. The whole town’s talking about you. and I locked the door behind her. between my legs.” Britney jumped up from the bed next to me and took my plate. Bit big. I haven’t done anything. and we both jumped back a little. and she was a bitch. There’s all sorts of rumors about you on the Internet.” “Yeah. “Wait a minute. I was sick. For the last twenty-four hours. dipped it in the bucket. She was nearly bald. Before we nicked those cars. I turned away and stripped off my dirty clothes. “You OK?” Britney hissed. “Listen.” . folded things.” I guess the heat and the food and the tiredness had got to me.” She disappeared and came back with a little heap of clean. I turned off the shower and stepped out. and I suddenly thought. Was she nuts? Or just keeping me here until her dad got in? “No. As the lumps of froth slid down my skin and gathered in the bottom of the stall. really. It was a pretty hopeless job. vomit down the front of her shirt. You’ll be alright. too. Before I could get up and make a run for the toilet. not unless you count that one from Skins who switched on the Christmas lights in the town square a couple of years ago.
” Me and my big mouth. One: I’ve told them not to. They don’t really get teenagers.” Waves of tiredness and nausea were sweeping through me.” It was almost like she was pleading with me. My safety was held by a little silver thread. She was busying herself sorting out blankets and pillows.” I said. an alarm clock was ticking steadily away — the noise filled the room. Somewhere in the room.” “It’s OK.” The warmth from the shower. The streetlight filtered through Britney’s thin curtains. I thought. “Won’t anyone come in here?” I asked. “How long is it since you slept in a bed?” she asked. I couldn’t face going out into the dark and the cold. She didn’t seem to understand that she was the powerful one here. the bald head might have given me a clue. It was bloody uncomfortable. She only had to raise her voice and shout to her mum and it was all over for me. It was too much to deal with. Britney. “No. I couldn’t. I ached just to know he was OK. each tick a hammer blow to my head. Britney turned off the lights. It’s your room. You wouldn’t know.” She struggled up and climbed into bed. eyes wide open. “Three nights. She smiled. It seemed like years ago. and I lay awkwardly.” She got down on the beanbag and started to wrap the blanket ’round her.” “ ’Course you could. I couldn’t. And two: They’re scared what they’d find. friends to hang out with? And a dead brother. would you?” Well.” “OK. and I curled up in the beanbag. It’s not right. the facts of life were the same. no pills. I had to think hard.” “No. a cool bedroom. Not tonight. “You sleep there. instantly regretting it. I mean it. a cobweb. The events of the day were filling my head — this morning I’d woken up with Spider’s arms ’round me. I ached to be with him. the sheer luxury of being inside had softened me up. Just me. I’ll be alright down here. You need some sleep. “What about your brother?” “Oh…no. She wouldn’t have to cut it. you’d be perfectly safe. You couldn’t escape death: It would get us all in the end. taking in the room. Some proper sleep. I was scared of being sick again. P’raps that’s what they’re scared of. Sorry. Where was he now? Lying there. but I just couldn’t see myself bedding down in a cop’s house for the night. “I’m sorry.She was right. . “Night. Three days to go. no condoms. I just saw the photos. You could stay. Which brought me back to Spider. Jem. then. Not that they would find anything: no drugs. they wouldn’t dare. my mum and dad. He died last year. not even cigarettes. “Night. I’d rather go than kick you out of your own bed. However cozy things seemed. just blow and it would stretch and break. see. “Don’t be so soft. then. What would it be like to be this girl? To have a mum and a dad.
“I used to do this with my brother. but I couldn’t tell if she was asleep or not. “My mum died. She was ill. it’s OK to talk about it.” “But she didn’t make a choice.” There was no way I was going to get any sleep on that beanbag. doesn’t understand. We all have to deal with it. Britney. brother and sister. never first. You got any family?” “I live with my foster mum and two little boys. S’pose I should cut them some slack. It was an accident. but now it felt OK. like Jim was ill. but it was pretty much torture lying there. What was she actually like? “Well. At least I’m pretty sure it was. we went places. She chose heroin over me. She’s been pretty kind to me. Death is so normal. I don’t think my parents were ever young — I think they were born middleaged. I thought about Karen. At least my parents did — they didn’t tell me until near the end. “We pretty much did know.” “Me. Britney nodded in agreement. I don’t think she was that into staying alive.” In the soft darkness. but wide-awake. You’ve just told me — she was addicted. the words just tumbled out. got into bed with a stranger. all the usual stuff. either. she was a good talker and a good listener. we still did things. She was breathing evenly. I’ve always known that. She doesn’t get me. too. I felt like I could say anything to her. just for a minute. “Tell me about it.” “Look.” “Yeah?” Then. But I don’t think knowing exactly when would’ve changed anything. curled up on her bed. Like she left me. had holidays. a soft whisper in the dark. they’re alright. It was out of her control. just normal. I was always way down on her list.” . I don’t think she wanted to die. and I thought I’d overstepped the mark again. gratefully tucking in. I didn’t want to bother her.” It was easier talking in the dark. The next fix was the most important thing. curling up my legs so as not to take up too much space. hearts and flowers. tried to help. I didn’t feel so self-conscious. Or perhaps it was just Britney. After about fifteen minutes. They’ve been through a lot. the words shot out — sheer reflex.” “Yeah. Most people you talk to have lost someone. when we were little — top and tail. but then she said.” I heard myself blurting out. I suppose she’s not a bitch. until…” “Sorry.CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE I lay awake in the soft gloom of Britney’s room. but…but…if you’d known that you only had a few years with your brother. Jem. OK to be close to someone. I was relieved to hear her voice. and my mum would read us a story. Except…it wasn’t the kind of help I wanted. Overdose. but I didn’t jump in — I could tell there was more to come. would it have made a difference?” She sighed.” “Britney. so I did as she said. OK to trust them. She chose to leave. angry. but then again. “Karen? She’s a bitch.” She paused. had fun — between treatments.” “What’s she like? Your foster mum?” Straightaway. right up until. but I don’t feel anything like you do.” “Was she ill?” “No. Not in a stupid way. you don’t have to…” “No. “when I was six. really. though. Put your pillow down that end — we can top and tail. tell me to shut up if you like. I was exhausted. I just feel…I dunno…empty. Even with him ill. twins.” “I just can’t sleep. I’d never have done this. had her eyes closed.” “But they’re alright. “You awake?” “Yeah. but I’ve never said it to anyone before. get in here. but nobody talks about it. He could still wind me up something proper. I don’t know why everyone gets so hung up about it. A few days ago. “And we worked out the important stuff — Jim knew I loved him and I knew he loved me.
Dad. the need to save him — had given me something else. “Listen. Not so easy to move on when the anger you’ve got is what keeps you going. There was a noise then. We’d been cheated. isn’t he? I heard you. and we both jumped out of our skins. Now what on earth is it?” “He’s dead. I’ll fight them. and he died in the middle of it all. but the ones I heard made me jump out of bed and crouch down behind the open door.” Britney came back into the room. still. Took eight of them to stop him. She was carrying a mug. cheated of the chance to say good-bye — it was unthinkable. Their voices were floating up the stairs now.” Britney clambered out of bed. a sharp bang from downstairs. It was all over. Night. Britney shuffled forward in the bed and put her hands on my legs. Dad said.” “He died?” “They don’t know if someone hit him or if he had a heart attack or whatever. blurry.” “OK. But it wasn’t the only thing I had now. straining desperately to hear more. my heart jumping around in my throat. cheated of our last few hours. I’d told him not to.” She’d put the tea down. “It’ll be Dad home — I’ll just go and see. and I slumped back against it. I couldn’t drink the tea. My whole body was a scream. and now she was helping me to my feet and shepherding me back to bed. I saw her eyes widen and she quickly held her index finger up to her mouth. Jem. but somehow she understood. and I picked up the alarm clock from her bedside table and angled it in the light coming in from the landing until I could make it out. Jem. Two-fifteen. right outside the door. If Spider was gone. “Good night. you turnip. my God. He was gone. “What is it?” she hissed.” Tattoo Face? “He went mad in his cell. She closed the door.” “That’s a long time to hate someone. Get back into bed — I’ve brought you some tea. The voices were nearer now. Try and get some sleep. love. The voices downstairs were competing with Spider’s words in my head: “I won’t go quietly. I hadn’t noticed them come upstairs. but quietly. I had nothing left. covered in tatts. silent tears running down my face. started smashing everything up. “No.” The words were distorted. He’d kicked off like he said he would. and went downstairs. my skin electric. I will. Sounded like she’d been watching too much Oprah to me. when my dad’s in the shower.” I let her words sink in and felt them settle within me. She left the door slightly ajar. How could this happen? How could everything be brought to a big dead end. He’s dead. Britney’s soft burr and the deeper bass notes of her dad. black grief pulsing through me. I’m just going in the shower. “It’s OK to talk now. three days early? I wanted to scream out — I didn’t care anymore if I was found. Here. A big bloke. She crouched down next to me. Maybe you need to let it go. I couldn’t get any words out.” What had he done? “…died in his cell…investigation…” Oh. and gave a little gasp as she spotted me behind the door. Life’s not that simple. put on her bathrobe. After a minute or so. we heard the bathroom door close and the shower start up.” “What?” “The other bloke they arrested. tell me in a minute.” . it was the other one. I’d told him it wasn’t worth it. It was all I could do to keep breathing.“I still hate her for leaving. All hell’s broken loose down at the station. “…went berserk…eight of us…bloody strong…” I opened the door a bit farther. Dad was one of the eight — he’s been suspended for the time being. I could only make out a few of his words. anyway. Spider — the need to see him again.
” That made me smile. nightmarish. dreamless sleep. The tea had soothed me. but now we were back on solid ground: sickening. away from the tick. sweet tea. and she must have felt it.” She handed it over — hot. “Britney?” “Yeah?” “Do you know when it happened? What time?” “Just before midnight. “You OK?” “Yeah. Just before the end of Dad’s shift. legs hooked into each other’s. The ground had shifted beneath my feet for a while. an instant. not Spider. but she leaned forward anyway and put her arms ’round me. “Everything will be alright.” It was like things were slotting back into place again. kind of. rules bending. “Mm?” “Thanks. away from the world for a few hours. tick of the clock. . have some of that tea. but she didn’t let me go. tick. The numbers were real. I was completely exhausted now.” “You’re alright. and go to sleep. but he only had three days to go. it was like listening to a reflection of myself. “Britney?” I said quietly into the darkness. “It’s alright.Tattoo Face. 12112010.” “Shuddup. I could feel waves of sleep starting to wash over me. I drained the cup and we both lay down. And I did go to sleep.” “I mean it. I stiffened. Spider was still alive. curled up at opposite ends of the bed. best thing I’d tasted for a long time. Here. but solid ground. my mind was so full I couldn’t think anymore.” she said.” “Need a hug?” I didn’t answer.
with a bloody police dog. and the fur itself. The way some people fuss over them and talk to them. Just let him. “he’ll be fine. dogs. I didn’t know what to say.” My words were as wooden as my movements. come on. I took another look at the front door. found a ball of twine. pet him.” Britney hissed. I leaned forward and put my hand on the fur at the bottom of his neck and rested it there. and so I stood there and let him mark me as one of his own. I looked down the hallway. is that you?” My heart was up in my mouth again. I could easily let myself out the front door. “Yeah. Not so bright after all. “It’s OK. No biggie. but something told me to trust her. I should have known it was too good to be true. Britney opened the kitchen door and shouted up. Britney stifled a giggle. People will always let you down. a man’s voice rang out from the landing.” she said to me. almost knocking me over. really quiet. black with all sorts of stuff sewn onto it. “We’ll have to be really.” We were both in our clothes.” Ray? She opened the kitchen door. slowly.” Britney was beckoning me into the kitchen. it’s just odd. different. and I could hear her whispering to someone. rubbed his huge. but wouldn’t be for much longer. Nearly half-six.” She fished in a drawer.” “Hello. I wanted to bolt. not his head. Britney held her hand up to stop me. trying not to look him in the eye or wind him up in any way.” “OK.CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX I reached for the alarm clock and held it in front of my face. haven’t you? Clever boy! Say hello to him. too. I’ll tie it on with some string. He hadn’t got a clue he was cozying up to the enemy. weren’t you.” Truth was. isn’t it? They don’t see them for what they are: something other. a great big hairy German shepherd. Go on. not human. “This is Ray. She was bent over in the kitchen. trying to figure out how I felt. anyway. some water. obviously. ten by eight. he’s Dad’s work dog.” From upstairs. don’t know anything about them. I edged toward him. “Are you awake?” Britney’s voice whispered. “Who’s that down there? Britney. “Hello. When she turned ’round. He sniffed at my leg and then quickly. but I felt tired. holding the collar of an enormous dog. Never had a pet. hard muzzle up and down my jeans. I moved my hand gently. so we got up in the dark and padded downstairs. she proudly held up a backpack. “Close the door behind you. he’ll know you’re a friend. on his shoulder. warm and full of life. there was the sound of the bathroom door opening. Ray. and badges. “I’ll go in first. I’ve got a blanket here. “I’ve put some things in. waiting for him to lunge forward and grab my arm in his massive jaws. I felt pretty rough. You’re a nice dog.” Christ! I was shut in a room now. Your clothes and a bit of food. say the strap broke. “What’s he doing?” “Nothing. After the bog flushed. We looked at each other. it was fantastic: clean and soft.” “Won’t you need it?” “I’ll just get another one. I’d had a few hours good sleep. I walked toward the square of light coming from other end of the hall. It was still dark. So it was a setup after all. Slowly. Rayray? You’ve found her now. “He was looking for you yesterday. there and then. too.” I wasn’t going to argue. “No. make sure we don’t startle Ray. He’s putting his scent on you. .” “Is he going to bite me?” She smiled and shook her head. He likes you. It felt like I was touching a lion. and started wrapping it ’round the rolled-up blanket. not like that. almost violently. “Is that your bag?” “My schoolbag. a bit queasy. I don’t do animals. I shifted around in the bed. I could feel his solid body underneath. Britney was busy in the corner with her back to me.” I said. but it won’t fit inside.
Britney. I kept expecting him to come to his senses and go for me like he was trained to do. it’s alright. he was more unpredictable. The dog was whining. and we both stood with our hands by our sides looking at the ground. We walked in silence. the dog falling behind and then bounding up to us. I closed it carefully behind us. Then I nodded to her.” “Yeah. and I really meant it. love.” I’d expected Britney to turn back once we’d got to the fields. “Where are you heading?” she asked after a while. I jumped down from the stile and. Somehow.” So this was it. “I’ll remember you.” “OK. then clipped the dog onto its leash and made for the back door.” “No.” She turned her head away. ‘Bout twelve miles. I’ll be rooting for you. Cross over. I understand. Dad. looking toward the canal. walked over the bridge. As I climbed over. and I had the backpack on. I’ll always remember you. I waved. like it was nothing. too. “That’s the canal there. She hadn’t moved. once he’s taken a crap. Off his leash. He’ll have a look for some rabbits in a bit. It’s been well cool.” “It’s a place we talked about. We didn’t say much — we’d pretty much said it all last night — but it was fine. “Is he alright. and me. beckoning me to follow her. the place where we were going to say good-bye. It’ll go all the way to Bath.” “I mean. We both clambered over after him. tried to catch her eye. I think she felt the same. having someone saying good-bye properly. finished tying the blanket onto the bag. there’s a bridge on the other side. Jem. “I can’t really tell you.” We walked a little way farther.” And I walked down the path and over to the stile. and she waved back. After a few minutes of twists and turns. and then follow the path left and you’ll be on the towpath. It’s better if I don’t. Not that I don’t trust you. The path goes over to that corner. He’ll come back when I call. Thanks. Even though he’s locked up at the moment. he’ll make it. like that?” “What?” “Just running about. The paths were so narrow it was single file. he’ll meet me there. Britney led me along the back alleys.“It’s OK. . She was holding the dog. I looked back. but she walked with me a little way. the uncomfortable reality of it came back to me. not just leaving without anyone knowing. “Good luck. then she said. Spider and me. I believe. Britney.” “I hope he does. but now that I was heading back to an outdoor life. anyway: dog. She kept her hand up for a second. was just watching me go.” I said. and it felt good. and I think. I’d felt out of place indoors. then called her dog and turned away. hitching up the bag on my back. If you go over that stile. I’d better take Ray back — they’ll all be getting up soon. is it safe?” She got what I meant this time. Jem. he won’t go after you. It’s me. and he jumped over. You’re his friend now. I’m going to take him out. until it just felt silly and pointless. but I didn’t know how to do it without it being embarrassing. we came to a stile between two fences. “Better get going. he’s fine. I’m going to keep heading there. “Thanks.” I kind of wanted to reach out to her.” She came back in. stifled. walking along together. “No problem. Britney unclipped Ray. I’m going to do it on my own.” I said. in the open field. shocked to feel the cool air on my face again. “’Course.
trusting eyes and two trails of snot coming out of his nose. I set off up the road and then turned right into a quieter one. One little tot blundered into my legs and stood staring up at me. A breeze whipped up. I wanted to switch off. this kid with no idea what death was yet. Now I was worn out and getting scared again. to get there. or the bottom of someone’s backyard. no eye contact. kids on bikes or scampering along with their dogs. There was something strange about this place. seeing a snapshot of other people’s lives. and you could see a bit better here with the streetlights — until I reached the corner of the field and there was no option but to climb. It was edged with white-painted metal gates and fancy bridges. Oh. Today. The sun was starting to drop behind the hills. There was one way to the next place and I didn’t need to make any decisions or choices. I crossed over and peered over the stone bridge. I felt like I was in a daze. I started looking for a place to get through.CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN The towpath made everything simpler. The worst had happened already — losing Spider. being left sleeping outside in the middle of nowhere. putting one foot in front of the other. I guess all the emotion and not eating much was catching up with me and I was in pretty poor shape. and people on bikes. just following the track. I fancied I could still feel the damp warmth of his hands through my jeans. As I clambered down the other side. This was different. but crowds were something else. Where was he? What were they doing to him now? The only way I could cope was to keep going. I’d be better off if I could find a park. I made myself move on — no good thinking what other people had. but I kept going. some sitting reading. head down. its icy edge cutting through my clothes. I’d done better than survive: I’d made a friend. I still picked up on their wariness. Every second or third front window was like a little TV screen. It was like something off the TV. just keep walking. brown. first thing I did was put my foot in something. I knew now that it was a question of when. There were joggers pounding along the flat path. it was probably the first day I’d walked the whole time. slippery pool. away from the road and into the darkness. the mothers shepherding the kids away. I needed to find somewhere to sleep. It was the time of day when people had their lights on but hadn’t yet drawn their curtains. a movie set. Two minutes down the path. I never used to be frightened of anything — figuring that life had already thrown about the worst it had at me by the time I was six — but the last few months had shaken all that up. I just ignored them. past handfuls of boats. stinking to high heaven. To be honest. enjoying a Saturday afternoon stroll in the winter sunshine. were dangerous. I was feeling edgy again now. there were cooking smells wafting out. Where I come from. canals are dirty places. especially. People. People on their computers or watching the telly. wherever there was. Why she’d do that. on and on. 04032053. my legs shrugging off his sticky grasp. but not safely penned in this time. I felt pretty calm about it all. It was so much easier walking with a backpack. the last few days. the houses stopped. I wanted the light to stay. picking out the shape of the city’s fingers reaching out into the fields. on and on. gathered together. to curl up and sleep. Is that what my mum was doing when she was shooting up? Escaping for a few hours? Was it all too much for her? Looking after a kid on her own? Living in a grotty flat? Let down time after time? I’d never understood it before. and pressed on. I tried to pick up the pace. soon be dinnertime. The grass sloped upward into the blackness. Well. but could make out the shapes of boats tied up. But I was beginning to see how attractive a bit of oblivion could be — it was just that I didn’t want to find it the way she had…. A few feet along. I sidestepped. while behind me his parents scolded him gently in a “don’t you just love him?” kind of way. one foot in front of the other. Funny. All I wanted now was to find somewhere safe to bed down for the night. A fence ran along the edge of a field. didn’t fancy getting caught up on more barbed wire. I was actually on a hill — weird when you’ve been walking on level ground all day. I’d be picked up. little knots of houses. too. I crossed the road to follow the line of the fence. The road went up and down to the left and right of me. heading west. The sky seemed . my legs pretty much shot after a full day’s walking. The odd one or two you could deal with. Jesus. On the other side of the road. What a pair of retards. With Spider busted. And I’d survived the first twelve hours. blank out the world for a while. with big. How cool was that? I walked all day. A deep chill swept through me. cows again. This little thing looked right into my face. and not if. Made me feel lonely. The landscape around me was changing as the light began to go. they belonged. secure. with a cobbled pavement and tall houses. Couldn’t see a great deal now. I followed the fence along for a bit — it was flatter. underneath it. He was going to die in his forties. drawing your eye in. I didn’t want to be alone in the dark. not hiding out and resting. being left without money. with carvings in the stone. Soon the path left the canal and led to a road. older couples arm in arm. Not sure there’d be anywhere to kip down along there. giving the stone an orange glow. I was like a zombie. they had people. They were warm. All day I’d felt the need to keep going. Eyes down. cramming it into plastic bags. on the other side. great. while the canal carried on flat. Soon there were buildings closing in on both sides. bright in the gathering gloom. Pale buildings clung to the hillsides to left and right. there was a stile and I climbed over — or rather hauled myself. I could tell I was getting near to the city when the towpath started getting busy: There were family groups. A big. I was almost in Bath. I needed to find somewhere to shelter or else be found frozen solid in the morning. running along the backs of warehouses and factories. I was so tired. too tired and numb to think much anymore. Streetlights were popping on. My eyes started stinging just thinking about him. but I didn’t have it in me. Spider and I had made things difficult for ourselves — grabbing whatever we could get our hands on. I almost felt my hair stand on end.
bushes tearing at my jeans. I curled up like a baby in the blanket Britney had given me. always Spider. until I found a flatter bit underneath the trees — actually a bit of a dip in the ground. . Was he asleep now? Was he lying somewhere. so I hauled myself over again and blundered up. awake like me. chest rising and falling? How many breaths did he have left? But when I’d stopped shivering and my body’s own warmth started to heat the space inside the blanket. wrapping it around my body and over my face. I discovered. As usual. They were on the other side of the fence. It hardly kept the wind off me at all. a clump of trees. I thought I’d never sleep: My head was full of Spider.to have disappeared. a hollow. the darkness around me sweeping into my head. I drifted off. blocked out by the hill and. but there was a gate. switching off the thoughts. I checked for cowpats as best I could. and sank down.
It felt grubby taking her money. fluffiest cotton streaked across the scene at ground level. then dipped his head again. hadn’t thought it was possible. “I’m sorry. stretching out its legs and tearing across the field. Where the hell had that come from? I needed to keep my wits about me. She was waiting for me to say something. he woke you up. The wind from last night had disappeared completely. dug about in her pocket. “Right. but the sort tourists would go into. “Oh. look. then bent to clip on the dog’s leash. were wet from the dew. Beneath. but he’d got me. God. I’m alright. then slowed to a walk. it was a dog: a big. becoming aware of my surroundings. I froze. Oh. “No. Right in the center. I was running faster than I’ve ever run. I was back in the twenty-first century and right by a main road with cars and trucks flashing by. Ray may have been a sheep in wolf’s clothing. so near I could hear the breath in and out. He’d heard her. worried about my reaction. so sorry. twinkly tat. I could bring you something…?” “No. Spider? Just for a minute. It was just the food. and this was a big one. As I reached to open the gate. But the noise was still there. I looked at the slowing stream of traffic. getting smaller as they reached the other side of the field. islands in a billowing sea. OK. he’s eaten your food. there were a few people around: window cleaners. I ran for a minute or so. I sat up and shuffled away from them on my behind. Watching them made me feel lonelier. You could come and have some breakfast. I set off down the hill toward the gate. On the other side there were hotels and bars. Then the dog took off suddenly. Now I felt a strange burst of confidence. It was only ten to eight. It’s the food. she broke into a run. Jesus.CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT There was someone chasing me. posh. “I’m so sorry.” She backed off. a cup of tea. He’s an incurable scavenger. an animal of some sort. in and out. He wouldn’t bite you. The movement rippled along him. my feet adding another set of prints to the two trails of the woman and dog. snuffling around. feel it on the back of my neck. their noise ringing in my ears. and darted forward. Honey-colored spires and towers stuck up through them. The woman got her fingers into his collar and yanked him right away. “Oh. injecting adrenaline into my bloodstream. They all had Christmas lights and decorations in the windows — sparkly. running. Look. “I don’t want your fucking money. people were sleeping and waking. Another noise broke in now. so close I could hear his breath. The sky above was a clear. I wrenched myself back to the surface. farting. like a wave. furry coat and scarf. not real ones. I’d been nervous about going into the city. Oh. She’d left her change after all. I just wanted this all to stop. but the last of the bread Britney had put in my bag was more interesting. and then shops. and I was running. All my things. come here!” He looked up. and I stood up to watch them go. I was still only half awake. Rip-off shops. there was nowhere left to go. A horn blared out to the right of me. But it wasn’t a cow. OK. but I still didn’t trust dogs.” It didn’t look like she meant it. Nothing was open. One last chance to grab a mouthful. The woman and her dog loomed over me. I wanted her to take her bloody dog and her middle-class niceness and her do-gooding pity away. then trotted up close and followed along. clouds of the whitest. a woman’s voice. I’m so sorry. She set off walking after him along the path. steaming gently in the morning light. It was too much. No one around here.” I managed. My fingers were clumsy with the cold. My chest was bursting. but with bulging muscles in its shoulders and back legs. woozy with sleep. My gaze shifted from the two of them. “Sparky! Come here! Come here!” I saw his ear twitch.” She held out a handful of change toward me. black dog with its nose in my backpack. but on the surface it looked like Disneyland. she was probably just trying to say something to make things better. someone emptying the trash . the last few stars still visible. It felt like charity.” That did the trick. I’d never seen anything like it. Time was running out for him. The woman unclipped the dog. When she saw us. I cut down an alley between two terraces. could it? I rolled up my blanket and tied it onto my backpack. as if he was a little black racehorse. Nothing bad could happen in a place like this. I saw a little pile of coins on the top of the post. their lights disorienting me. scratching. The owner of the voice came ’round the corner now: wellies. to the view beyond. He circled around her three times. shit! Sparky. I rolled over slowly. I couldn’t cope with it anymore. tall and skinny. Somewhere beneath the fog. Just a dream after all.” “I don’t think I’ve got any money on me. I thought he was next to me again. I’m alright. You could buy some breakfast with this. honest. over a bridge spanning a thick. taking a morning piss. tightened her grip on the dog’s collar. didn’t he? Scared you. I only live down there. and the clothes I was in. heading into the city center. opening my eyes slightly to see the gray light of dawn. There was a dark shape right on top of me. She recoiled visibly. and then looked back at me.” She reached into her pockets. Sorry. where they stopped for a moment. Cows? I’d thought they were in the other field. I put it in my pocket. different from Britney giving me her stuff. suddenly. and I didn’t want to be nobody’s charity case. They took a wide semicircle below me on the hill and went through the gate into the next field. I looked at my watch. brown river.” “He’s eaten your food. pale blue.” Her voice was anxious. There was an awkward silence. someone near me. I went through the far gate and crossed the street. I was still lying on the ground. making my heart jump and my legs run faster. The path went under a railway bridge and then. “S’alright.
I took a sip. Then he drew the bolt across. one of them had clocked me. I walked down the main drag. the hotness in my mouth making me realize just how cold I was. I looked at the massive building on my left. but as I waited for the guy behind the counter to fetch my order it was making me gag. then put his hand ’round the edge of the door. “Thank you. “for keeping the abbey churchyard tidy. stepping over the cans lying ’round the bottom of the steps. that’s what they were: stone ladders with stone people climbing up. Bloody busybody. with figures perched on them. under swags of Christmas lights. and wandered back up the street. All those people I’d thought were taking no notice. Daft buggers. and right at the bottom found the only place that was open — McDonald’s. A friendly greeting to another dosser. then. “Alright. swigging Special Brew for breakfast. He hesitated for an agonizing second. or somewhere to be. Please let me in. My knee was still giving me grief. and started to feel exposed again. There was a big wooden door in the middle. It’s the time of day when you don’t want to be bothered with anyone else. Shit. holding his can toward me.” He held up his hand in a kind of greeting and breezed over to a little door at the side of the main one. Or that woman in the fields. No! To hear it echoing ’round this square. And he’s right. picked up the empty cup and the vile muffin in its wrapper. making me feel more like a human being. then grabbed my arm and pulled me inside. wait. and eased off the plastic lid. made them look like a smudged drawing. some smelling of their first cigarette of the day as they passed. some sort of market. a big bunch of keys jangling at his waist. I unwrapped the muffin. I thought. I was about to walk away when I thought better of it. I stood up and hitched my bag onto my back. I took a little bite. the unease. The egg yolk had broken and was oozing out of the bun. Please. As good a place as any. I spat my mouthful back into the wrapper. and you just get on with it. find somewhere more out of the way to sit. I put it down on the bench. Actually. but my stomach lurched as I chewed. I was right in front of the big church with the tower. His pale blue eyes searched mine and then looked beyond me. I ran toward him. chins tucked down into their scarves. this was it. Angels? They were definitely trying to get up there. The guy with the keys had got in now. There was an archway leading to a square with loads of seats and a huge tree planted in the middle. was just swinging the door shut. No one gave me a second glance.” a guy in a long coat and scarf said as he walked past. but I couldn’t eat that. Better to move on. which was cold now. Some of them had bits missing. I could see my rescuer turning around and leaning on the door. “Dear Lord. and put them in a trash can a few feet away. “What have I done?” he gasped. I was hungry. I’d got enough money for a cup of tea and an Egg McMuffin. There was someone in uniform at the other end. And I kept going. the liquid egg congealed. I glanced over my shoulder to see if there was anyone behind me. you’ve got something to do. that’s what I am. I’m scared.bins. “Alright.” My voice was breaking. so I walked through the city. I turned away and made for an alley to my left. I always used to like that smell. He put his hands up to his mouth. out of the square. There was a group of dossers on some steps. “Open up! This is the police!” As my eyes got used to the gloom. The drink was warming me. I could sense the sideways glances. “Help me. until I’d figured out what to do. If you’re out that early. Above it was a gigantic arch-shaped window. No way. He thinks I’m like him. There were more people around now. I swiveled ’round and headed back to the archway where I’d come in. what have I done?” . stopping its movement. I stumbled into the darkness while he pushed the heavy door with both his hands until it slammed shut. picked up my tea instead. love?” one of them called out. I wanted to shout. All the way up on either side there were horizontal lines carved in the stone. I picked up the muffin. grateful for the fresh air. looked a bit like people on a ladder. but the ones that were whole had wings.” I said. through a makeshift arch I could see some little wooden huts. “Wait. I took my stuff outside. perhaps loads of them had. looking straight at me. the smell you get in a McDonald’s. avoiding his automatically. or hurrying along. They were making for the area to the side of the abbey. please. why didn’t they just fly? I drank my tea and studied the weird carvings. people letting themselves into shops. Then shouts. although some of them were the wrong way ’round. I sat down and put my drink on the bench next to me.” He looked up. Two men in suits were striding toward me — could have just been office workers on their way to work. my eyes flicking back down to the pavement. Notices at either corner said BATH ABBEY. From the other side came the sound of footsteps and hands thudding onto the wood. but I didn’t want to stop anywhere. startled. but they were looking straight at me. looked like they were about to drop off.
” He half turned and offered me his hand. Adam’s apple bobbing nervously up and down. and surprisingly soft for such a thin man. but I couldn’t catch all the words. guilty as charged. Go on.” he said. “somewhere safe. “to clear it up. “They’ll wait. “Are they really the police?” He meant the thugs banging on the other side of the door. by the way. That is serious. and pale. I was in the tallest space: columns of stone reaching up and up to the ceiling.” “They’re going to frame me.” The back of the chair was boring into my back. with a little self-conscious laugh. “You look exhausted. isn’t it? Sanctuary? A place of safety. pale eyes. “You’re the one. It dug into my back. I closed my eyes again and waited. It took him a while to twig that I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. Lower down. Then footsteps. and we shook awkwardly. Late twenties. the windows were made of colored glass. “Oh. I stepped through. they think I done it. I never…” My voice rose. I nodded again. You really need to talk to them. really. the girl from London that they’re all looking for.” I opened my eyes and looked at him blankly.” “Go through that door into the abbey and have a seat. so I got up and followed him as he bustled about the place. you don’t have to say. but not as a suspect. delicate. but I haven’t. I don’t mind.” he said gently. “I’m Simon. are they? They just want someone to frame. the bolt went across again. “made with the best of intentions. switching on lights. expecting more gloom. unlocking doors.” he explained. he was going to turn me in anyway. Behind me. I took my bag off and sat down on a wooden bench. I took it in mine. but they’ll wait. I said you’d claimed sanctuary in the Lord’s house and that they could not trespass here. I didn’t want to sit there for any longer than I had to. “will be here soon for Matins. “It’s all right. but I did want some more time. “And you are…?” .” I murmured.” The frown deepened. You seen them. They’re not happy. “Do you mind me asking why the police are chasing you? I mean.” He frowned. and…” “OK. and the inner door opening.” “Something serious?” “They think I blew up the London Eye. “I should open up.” He swallowed and the Adam’s apple went into overdrive. but they’re not going to listen to me. “They certainly want to talk to you. but up high they were clear. case closed. I’ll discuss it with him. I’ll tell them what’s going on. Do you need a bit of time? Compose yourself?” I didn’t know what that last bit meant. maybe.” he added quickly.” I closed my eyes — after all that. as a witness.CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE He looked at me. and they’ve taken my friend. I see. OK. “Are you all right?” I nodded. which seemed to be propped up with huge stone fans. the sky beyond now a brilliant blue. I could hear the bolts on the main door being slid back. let them in. but the church itself was flooded with light.” “They think I’ve done something bad. I need to get the church ready. the rector — my boss. those guys would burst through. Any minute now. There was the sound of voices. echoing up and through the space. He was younger than I had thought when I first saw him. Thin. A white lie. but I never did. Do you mind waiting here while I get on? Or you could come ’round with me. Look. The door banged back into place.” “Yeah. “Yes. His hand was warm. and lighting candles. “Yeah. “It’s what you want.” I wasn’t sure.” I pulled on a big metal handle and opened the inside door. I didn’t want to see it happen. with wavy brown hair crinkling over from a side part. not if you don’t want to.
I flashed a worried look at Simon. I’m done for. Nice to meet you. I stood up and went over to the wooden screen and looked through one of the gaps in the carving. We must hand over the girl. Carry on praying. we look after it. Rector. “Don’t worry. we must search our hearts and do what Jesus would do.” I said. I mean.” Simon held up his hands. with a gold cross on it. balding and with glasses — more like a bank manager than a priest. stepping out from behind the screen. She came to us for help. but solid-looking. “What would He do? Where is she?” His tone was gentler now. this is the House of God. you can stop smirking. Simon trotted up to him. had said the one thing that could save me. like he was fending off the force of the man’s voice. there are some warm air vents underneath the benches. Simon. Been sleeping on the streets?” “Yeah.” I sat where he’d shown me. In the middle was a small black pillar with a candle on the top. because Simon had found the perfect line. This is serious. “She’s in the chapel. And I can do exactly what I like in my church. They’re lovely words.” I said. Simon? There are armed police outside the abbey. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. we’re the guardians. Frisked! Before they’d let me into my own church. the sound of footsteps coming toward me — “but you can’t just throw her out. Why write something in a language like that. I am the rector. after all. She’s a child. “I’m here.” Simon said. That’s it. Where is she?” I shrank back farther into the corner of the chapel. that’ll be the rector. Their echoes faded away into the vaulted roof. Simon. powerful. Help you thaw out. A man had come in through a side door.” “Well. I didn’t know what you were meant to say back.” The footsteps stopped. “I mean.” Funny thing to say — suppose it was the way he was brought up. and so was I.” They were very close now. a small man. I started as I realized someone was standing in the chapel entrance. something only posh people understand? It’s like telling the rest of us to sod off. sanctuary. There was writing ’round the edge. his eyes sweeping around like searchlights. isn’t it? I read the words to myself.” “She may also be a mass murderer. but I’ll be back in a minute. “And your point is?” “Surely…surely. “I beg your pardon?” I knew that tone. “It’s God’s church. manners and everything. “If you sit in the chapel here. “She’s a child. Simon was in real trouble now. “I was just…reading it.” How lame was that? I thought. Of course. Jem.” “I was frisked. Jem.” He smiled. “Of course. He was looking left and right.” We’d got to an area at the front of the church on the right-hand side. But I wasn’t. We must stop this right now. I’m Jem. The whole place is surrounded. I thought. that is to say. Wait here.” “Jem. . but really it isn’t ours.“Um. and there was silence. At one end was a table. “What in the name of the Lord is going on here.” “Not praying. separated from the rest by a sort of wooden screen. I’ll carry on ’round.” He disappeared back into the church. No idea what that was all about. I got up to have a look: DONA NOBIS PACEM. but” — immediately. sounding out their strangeness. so I didn’t say anything.” “Oh…I see. and I listened as the man boomed. on a cushioned ledge at the edge of the room. “What would Jesus do?” the rector said slowly. “Your hand’s very cold. but…” His stumbling words trailed off.” I didn’t have time to ask him what they meant as the sharp sound of a door opening echoed down the church. “It’s only me.
some spare undies from Britney. in a world of their own. as it happened. Simon.” “Good. feeling ridiculous. “This isn’t going to be easy. and I saw his future: forty years or more. “will you do the honors?” Simon looked more frightened than me. I’ll just get some water.” He disappeared into the toilet but left the door open. Now. where there was a table. but I had a feeling it wasn’t just a bit of mud and grass he was washing away. I didn’t know whether to have my eyes open or shut.” I shrugged.” Behind him. No milk. which was lying on the floor. He stepped forward. and then his hands moved under my arms and down my body. keen to put his day back on track. the last bit of change to the pile on the floor. especially the one I’d twisted getting over the fence.” I shot him a warning look. “No. Any excuse for him to stick his fingers where I don’t want him to. He smiled straight at me when he emerged. I thought. wondering how long it would be until I knew my fate. I’m afraid. He crouched and patted each leg in turn. I don’t know what he saw when he looked at me. palms together. I—” I started to say. “I’m afraid we’ll have to search you.” “No guns or knives? Explosives?” he said. It wasn’t really my stuff. a somebody. For the time being. they both opened their eyes at the same time and stood up.” “Do you mind if I. “Tell you what. but I wasn’t really in a position to argue. I’m sure you understand that. let us pray together. “Come. that’s fine. the contents spilling onto the tiled floor: food. “Nothing there. too. a string of stuff I didn’t understand. Before we go on. When he’d finished there were beads of sweat on his forehead — sheer stress. too. his face turned away from my crotch but coloring up all the same. straightening up. The rector launched into a prayer. “You’re welcome in God’s House. tea or coffee?” .He looked at me. I held my hands in front of me.” He bustled off toward the main door. and then sat down properly. and some chairs. You have sought sanctuary with us. The rector stepped toward me and took both my hands in his. before the unmistakable sound of the kettle filling up. there’ll be people queuing outside for Matins. the comfort of growing old. my cigarettes. “If you show Jem into the vestry. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with myself.” He gently patted my shoulders. “And your pockets? Would you mind turning out your pockets?” I dug my hands into the pockets of my coat and my jeans and added old tissues. They were kneeling like two angels on a Christmas card. My knees were getting sore. eyeing my backpack. I got to my feet. I shifted about to try and get more comfortable. Now we’re getting to it. gather up your things and. “Simon. I’ll put the kettle on. I know I was pretty grubby from sleeping in that ditch. bottles of water. And then he was quiet. child. and it was all I had in the world. and I shot a sneaky glance along the row to see what the other two were doing. Dirty old man. “I’m sorry about this. I should think. if you show our guest…” “Jem. Simon showed me into a side room. Do you have anything with you. “No. “Nothing. and a rack with loads of cloaks and things hanging up. for any of us. I was ready to defend myself. and I could hear the squelching of soap as he washed his hands. have a look?” I did mind. and that was everything I had in the world. “We don’t allow smoking in here. my lighter. or Simon here.” He was having trouble looking me in the eye since he’d frisked me. I undid my bag there and then and tipped it out. “I’m sorry. eyes firmly closed. Simon was beaming. “That’s better. and you will find it here. If they started anything. his face gave nothing away. it was Britney’s. respected. Now.” He walked to the front of the chapel and knelt down. any weapons?” I shook my head. It was a pretty safe bet that he didn’t get that close to a woman too often. but Simon held his finger up to his lips and shook his head. Fifteen years old. I need you to answer me honestly. Neither of them looked like much of a threat to me. like he was talking to someone — asking them stuff — but of course there was nobody else there. just us three. but after a bit he said.” the rector said. The tap was running for a long time. “Just put your things down here. then he shepherded me beside him and we knelt down. but I could make us a black coffee or tea. Hours later — or was it minutes? — and without saying anything to each other.” he said. I will speak with the police and explain that this isn’t a siege.” Simon said quickly. then. We need to open up.
” Simon said. I planted the bomb. No one would believe me. “It’s not like that. about the London Eye? I was right to run away. he’d have me in the loony bin before I could blink — carted off to a secure ward somewhere. Truth and lies. my voice echoing through the place. It’s what keeps this country civilized. then you should talk to the police. but it’s not where I come from. you mean. your last days.” They looked at each other again. slamming his fist against the door. “Go on. either. “I’ll talk when you bring my friend here. his mouth slowly shaping all the words like he was talking to a very young kid or a foreigner.” I said. wasn’t I. You’re like the rest of them. The only thing I said. “No!” he shouted. It’s possible that your…your friend didn’t tell you everything. Maybe it’s like that here. I’ll talk when I’ve seen Spider. right.” “He was a suspect. locked up. What can you say to people like that. I see a number. But if that’s what you believe. They will be able to do tests that can exonerate you. They brought in a doctor. They see a couple of kids. just chilling somewhere.” They tried all the usual stuff: good cop. anyone who fits the picture.” “How do you know what the number means?” “I’ve seen enough death. part of the system themselves. He hasn’t done anything. Why should I? They’ve taken my friend away. I could see that lots of people there were going to die. didn’t know their language. so we ran away. bad cop. tell them what you knew?” “Why do you think? It’s all so simple.” but it still felt like a betrayal.” I snorted. they see a couple of muggers. “Why didn’t you go to the police. but I never will. the date. There are processes. Anyway. I’ll talk. You must trust the system. They need to collar someone for a crime. “Yeah. tranquilized. irritated cop. I just knew that something was going to happen that day. They let the police in to see me.” “I’m not laughing. Innocent people have died. “Of course they’ve taken him away. respect me. was. hanging out. The feeling that Simon and the rector might protect me from all that had faded during the lecture about our “civilized society. “Must we really go backward and forward like this? You are in serious trouble. We need to get to the truth.” His nostrils flared. I didn’t have the words that would make them listen. they collar someone — one of the usual suspects. . threatening cop.” They were both looking at me intently now. young lady. that day in London. if you have nothing to hide.” “Set me up. they will let him go again. they see a dealer. None of it touched me — I let their voices wash over and around me. trying to make him into something he’s not.” he said. I don’t trust them. then you should tell them. isn’t it? Tell the truth and it will all be alright.” “It’s certainly…unexpected” — the rector was picking his words carefully—“what you’re saying. You can tell them that.” “No!” I shouted. But when I saw that all those people had the same day. The number is a date. doesn’t matter. Perhaps” — his voice softened—“perhaps we sometimes don’t know people as well as we think we do. or so naïve they believe all that establishment bullshit? I couldn’t argue against them. it’s not right. it all gets mixed up. and as usual they brought a social worker with them.” They looked at each other quickly. kind cop. It was me. You’re twisting things around.” The rector let out his breath like a burst of steam. I know. That you got caught up in something you knew nothing about…. I was scared. They see a black kid with some money. but I didn’t talk to him. I never tell people.” “How did you know?” The rector was waiting for me to tell him I did it. If they let him go. over and over. I was right. “That’s not how it works in this country.” I closed my eyes. It’s not a laughing matter. “I can see the day. anyway.” His turn to get angry. too. checks and balances.CHAPTER THIRTY “I’ll talk to them on one condition: They must let Spider go — my mate. I didn’t want to be there. “I don’t like your attitude. I need to see him.” “What do you mean. Nothing bad will happen to you if you tell the truth. you can see the date…?” “If I look at someone. I didn’t answer their questions. “but I’m not talking to them. test your clothes for traces of explosives. If you have done nothing wrong. while they got more and more frustrated. sympathetic cop. Appalling things have happened. We need to find those responsible. I was pretty sure once I started telling him about the numbers. “I didn’t do nothing. when people are going to die. of course. until I thought it would drive us all mad. “I could tell you both yours. And if he has done nothing wrong and he tells the truth. It’s kind of inside my head and outside at the same time. It wasn’t him at the London Eye.
” There was pain in her face. “I’ll be here. “It’s alright now. “How are you? Are you alright? I’ve been so worried. I looked up and Karen caught my eye. but I didn’t care. Eventually. You can come home with me. not without Spider. “You look tired. Jem. Simon. Whether he knew it or not. and Anne started saying their good-byes. and I’ll be with you. Instantly her face crumpled with hurt feelings.” She stroked my cheek with one of her pudgy hands. You can’t make me. Let me look after you for a bit. but I think there was provocation there. I’ll vouch for her. but Karen stepped in.” I shrugged her arm away.” “I’m going to stay here. kind of repulsed me. it took me a few seconds to remember where I’d seen her before.” They looked at each other. When I . Karen. “I’m not moving. something powerful. the projects. If you’d only told me…. You’re very pale. she’s not a violent kid at heart. had appeared with a couple of duvets and some pillows. “I need to get back. “I’ve got a neighbor keeping an eye on the kids. and she and Karen made up two beds on the floor. “If you can stay. Simon had given me something precious. “Why not?” “You’re a fifteen-year-old girl. You’re not going to take me away. I expect the police will want to question you again tomorrow. Give yourself a break.” She gathered up her handbag and went to join the others outside. it surprised me. Anyway. I’m just asking you — asking. They could talk about me all they liked. but you can come home tonight. There was a lot of emotion from her. in that hug. and half walked. They were doing that adult thing of talking like I wasn’t there. “Jem!” she said. it was like I’d lived a whole different life since I’d left her house. concern. Karen. “We can’t leave you here on your own.” said Karen. The rector’s wife. The last few days had been so intense. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Then the rector.” Home. It’s safer than on the street. She gathered me to her. She got into trouble at school. Anne. she let go and moved away a little.” She sighed and shook her head. She held me for a long time. “No one’s going to take you anywhere you don’t want to go.” said the rector wearily.” She frowned. you’ve been through a heck of a lot.” I said. and I’ll be there for you. I can sleep right here.” She had her hand on my arm now. and I’m going to. Jem.” “Be reasonable. we’ll make up a couple of beds for you. It’s not appropriate.” They came back in. “You’re not so tough.” “I’ve been on my own for days. but…I suppose I could see if she could sleep there. Jem — that you come home. She looked at me evenly. This is not a place where people live.” Karen made a couple of phone calls and there was a bit more faffing about. “I’m alright. but I didn’t pull away. everything back to normal. The thought of Sherwood Road. One day you’ll realize that. and all at once I was back in her kitchen on Sherwood Road. and I tuned out for a while. “I don’t think you can. picking at a flap of loose skin on the side of my thumb. the twins.” “I can stay. Jem. The door opened to let another woman in: Karen.” Karen looked at Simon and the rector. I’m going to stay until they bring Spider back to me. Simon was telling Karen about the facilities. and I was who I used to be. Karen. smashed to bits the night before I left. who nodded.” I just sat still. It was like she’d really missed me — I would have thought she’d be glad for the peace and quiet of the past few days.” “Of course you must. “I’m not going. Imogen — the social worker — Simon. One word: “sanctuary. half ran across the room with her arms open. Jem. but I knew we were both thinking of my room back at her house. The rector started mouthing off about me vandalizing the place. too: packets and parcels that she left on the table. and the rector. “I’m not going. She wouldn’t be destructive here. I’m staying here. She’d brought some food.There was the sound of movement outside. a silver bullet to defend myself with. but I was betrayed by the wobble in my voice. too.” Karen chipped in. before all this happened. Jem. To be honest.
leaving a two-inch gap. “If you’re in trouble. lighting up the inside of the abbey.” “OK. There was quite a crowd there. and a shed load of policemen. the sky was flashing like fireworks. In the desk drawer. On the other side of the windows. “if you need them. The key to the side door has some yellow tape around it. and he closed the door. leaving through the side door. down the abbey. the big metal key scraping ’round as he locked it. Beyond them I got a glimpse of the outside world. “Let’s see what Anne left us. ladies. shall we? This is going to be fun. too. listening to the noise outside. he had lowered his voice. isn’t it.” said Karen.tuned back in. The abbey contingent looked shaken. but I could still hear. As the door opened. Jem?” . there’s a spare set of keys in the vestry. He paused as he was swinging the door shut. Sleep well. an oddly liquid sound. “Thanks. What the hell was going on? There were people shouting.” They filed out quietly. I leaned against the door. “Right. a barrage of flashbulbs went off.” he was saying. the big bunch of keys jingling in his hand. and I ducked back out of view behind the door. “Good night.” His face twitched into a smile. like strobe lights at a disco. Like camping! Ever been camping.” Karen said. it was complete pandemonium. The last one out was Simon.
I was bursting inside. even as I was almost screaming with frustration. “Just friends. when things are confusing. of course.” “No. I know. you know. I’m just saying that sometimes the mind plays tricks on you.” I blurted out. Karen. a twinkling. eventually.” She smiled at me. You’ve been through so much unhappiness and change. but for a while she was happy to chatter away about the twins and the media fuss — there’d been reporters camped outside their front door. too. “good friends. Jem. It just is. The police are holding him at the moment. all the rumors flying around.” A hateful warmth was spreading into my cheeks. The thing was. “But you like him. “That’s not real. we try and make sense of it our own way. sympathetic smile. They want to talk to you as witnesses. That’s not real life.” Faced with no alternative. homemade cake. we find ways of coping…. You don’t understand. You just need to cooperate with the police. “I know what that feels like.” “So I need a psychiatrist?” “No. apparently. All those things I could never say out loud — except. because it is. I did. She was used to me throwing things like this back in her face. trying to keep my voice even. There is nothing wrong with you that some stability — love. not with her. which is what I wanted to do. God. Karen. I was young once. I could see where she was coming from. I thought about him every minute of every day. She saw it. but I realized that I did want her on my side.” “Jem. a really nervous little whinny. Jem. and we sat on either side of the table. it’s hideous when your body betrays you. Karen made us both a cup of tea. I loved him. All things I’m trying to give you. Anne had brought us sandwiches.” I mumbled. the day the London Eye was blown to bits. even — wouldn’t cure. do you?” “It’s not what I believe or not. It has to be before the fifteenth!” “Don’t be silly. You don’t believe that. but nobody thinks either of you planted that bomb. and when I finished. Yeah.” She still didn’t understand. Jem. is it?” I didn’t want to talk about him. restlessly squeezing and shaping the tinfoil. we haven’t. She looked uneasy all the way through. like I’d told Spider. I know it’s difficult…” “We haven’t got the time to wait.” “Then you’d better tell me. I need to see him. and then. Maybe she could help me see him again. I liked him. You’re both fifteen. they’ll let you see Spider again. fiddling with the foil food wrappers. It’s important.” How many more middle-aged clichés was she going to roll out today? “You will see him again. “And I really need to see him again. I told her about the numbers. “Come on. And we still haven’t heard what they want to do about you taking that knife to school…. And then there’s stealing cars and whatever else you’ve been up to in the last few days. I ached without him. I was waiting for the probing questions.” “It is. So I didn’t tell her to mind her own business. anyway. Calm down. you need a proper home. I thought she was going to ask about the numbers. “Yeah. but. “I’m not saying it isn’t a mess. maybe. If someone else had told me my story.” I said. You didn’t make it up on purpose. she laughed. sometimes things get muddled up.” “Eventually’s no good. willing the hot skin on my face to cool down and get back to normal. but we can sort it all out. Sometimes. I know how tough it’s been for you. I knew that when I agreed to take you on. “So what’s going on with you and Terry — Spider — then? More than friends now.” she said coyly. to him.” She sighed. “I didn’t make it up! Do you think I want to live like this?” “Alright. “You’ve got to learn to be patient. I really like him. potato chips. she asked the question a mum would ask. Jem.” She snorted and looked down at her fingers. I’d .” Her eyes flicked up to me nervously.CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE We unwrapped the parcels of food. It’s been my life for fifteen years. and started smiling. You’ve got all the time in the world. the time Karen would want it all explained to her.
dead for two hundred and thirty years. Spider’s life could be measured out in hours now — minutes. I was surrounded by bones and ghosts. I’ll just stretch my legs while the kettle’s on. I had to take control. What had happened to her after they’d taken me away in that car? Had she been buried somewhere. “’Nother cup of tea. too. I wandered back into the vestry. It was real. Karen went on chatting away.” “That what you’ve been doing?” “Mm-hm. LAID TO REST. The numbers were fine — it was the words that were more troubling. just stop? I felt a tide of panic rising up inside me. and I would have just a few days ago. It was irritating beyond belief. or some police cell. smothering their telltale sound.” “OK. I looked around the abbey. into the dark cavern of the abbey. He would die in jail. that nobody knew would be fatal. But it’s better than sleeping under a hedge. Even to me. so fizzing with energy. stopping here and there to read the stones. tossed around from home to home. or where what was left of her was. As I went to pick them up. The stones told the facts: birth date. How could anyone possibly know any different? It made me wonder where my mum was now. the murder option seemed a bit extreme. as far as I could see. a metallic. Karen. probably. dossers. quietly easing out one of drawers. belief. you’re quite right. and tiptoed over to the table. or cremated? Had there been a funeral. isn’t it?” she said. She was looking at me now. in a cheery. DEPARTED. love?” I nodded. How could someone so alive. Karen’s world was one of routines and rules. By then I was so tired. “It’s quite comfy. I don’t think I could sleep more than one night here — the floor’s so hard…. no say in what happened to me. Just GONE.” But no more than five minutes after that. I was standing on one: the marker for someone. After half an hour or so. Unless he was ill. Perhaps I would have slept on my own. I wouldn’t have believed them. “Tea’s ready. Words that had lasted for hundreds of years — describing people nobody remembered anymore. but what would be the point now? “I know you are. or even certainty? If I’d written that memorial. I knew I’d have to get up or kill her where she lay. just waiting to be kicked. but the steady noise of her rumbling breaths in and out seemed to fill the room. told me the news. “Uh…no. huffing and puffing. I was jealous. . It didn’t change. even. and slags just get chucked in a ditch? All of a sudden. I let her tuck me in and then listened as.” Her duvet rustled as she shifted about. already in the grip of something that seemed trivial. “I know. they moved against each other. It should have creeped me out.” “Well. thick bunch. I’d seen his number so many times. I couldn’t possibly wait out these next hours until someone came to me. Perhaps he was ill right now. The keys were in there sure enough. and had anyone gone? Or do junkies. “Yeah. I remembered Simon’s whispered words to Karen before he left. She had her size-seven feet firmly on the ground. TAKEN BY HER MAKER. She was well out of it. he’d be needing a gravestone. she got into her bed. That’s all there was. and tomorrow we’ll talk more about you coming home and having a proper night’s sleep in a real bed. messed-up life to have ended properly. racing ahead to the next few days. a big. the space above me. How could this woman just drift off so quickly like that? My head was full of the last few days. Was it wishful thinking. determined to find a way to see him again. I needed to step up the pressure. a grateful acknowledgment of the effort it had cost me to say that. death date. too. I wanted her messy. surprised again at its sheer size. GONE TO A BETTER PLACE. Then a chill ran through me. so slowly I peeled down my duvet and stood up. somehow get them to release him. she was gently snoring.” Karen’s voice echoed into the church. I’d been like a cork at sea all my life. The walls. It didn’t. Despite what Karen thought. Beaten up. you get some kip now.” And she pressed her lips together in a tight little smile. I really wanted there to be a grave somewhere for her. trying to make it fun. were a patchwork. I stopped in front of this last one. Jem. All over the floor were stones with writing carved into them.have thought they were pulling a prank or were schizo or something. I was nearly falling over. We had our tea and got ready for bed. making-the-best-of-things kind of voice. Of course this didn’t make any sense to her. I stretched the bottom of my hoodie out and wrapped them up. I would have rubbed out the last four words. What would they do for Spider? It seemed impossible that just over twenty-four hours from now. I liked it — I liked the honesty of seeing people’s numbers.” I said. Then I padded out of the vestry. “Honestly. oily noise.” I got up and walked out into the abbey.
The sharp air hurt my lungs. The first one I came to was full of ropes hanging down from the ceiling. you couldn’t see the street-level grime. big holes in it. isn’t it. which led through to a little room full of junk — well. I tried breathing in through my nose. I swung the door open and was met with a blast of cold air. There were markings ’round the edge and two sticks — a clock’s hands. It was darker still inside there. God. Everything about it was cold: the stone through my socks. Another minute gone. Amazing how stupid tourists can be. talking to yourself? Sounds even crazier in a church. just one step after the other. Again. Although it was cold on the staircase. and hour. I started up the stairs. minute. Like everything else ’round here. Keeping my head lowered. but I didn’t want to leave — I was pretty sure I’d have more negotiating power while I stayed inside the church. hanging around outside on a night like this. my knee still not very good. I’ve never been anywhere so weird. slowly. pillars. round white disc. there was quite a crowd. I pulled myself up. But I did want to explore. The orange streetlights made the pale stone look warm: The buildings were almost glowing. blindly. but I took it steady. and you could see strings of lights crisscrossing the little streets. I had the key to this one. My words bounced off the stone. There was something knobbly there.CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO It wasn’t pitch-black in the church. Streetlights from outside filtered in through the stained-glass windows. maybe millions of clocks. I sat down and hung my head forward. I hesitated for a minute. but there was a door to the side. I’m alright with heights — lucky. I picked a door in the corner. a dead end. clocks were marking each second. The third one worked. My eyes. disappearing up and ’round. it was beautiful. I opened the door. and once you lost sight of the bottom. my keys didn’t let me down. The tower rose up from the other side of the roof. I flicked it on and the staircase was lit up. or just go back. and started trying all the keys. fumbling for the light switch. I stepped inside and rested my hand on the cold stone wall. the iciness of the open air was a shock again. when I got to the top. sending the glass spraying out into the night. A different kind of city. If I’d had a brick in hand. but I could just make out another door on the far side. some of them sitting down on benches or the ground. and my fingers twitched at the thought of untying them. but this time with rooms leading off it. with policemen dotted among them. I’d have launched it right through the round white clock face. at least it looked like junk: bits of old stone and wood. Up and up. Took me a while to realize why it looked like the negative of the roof downstairs. Without me. I was starting to think I should go back for my sneakers and my coat. couldn’t help myself: I was on the roof. Slowly. The ends were all tied up on one side of the room. even the air was colder here. I was behind the clock on the abbey tower. back to the stairs. it felt like it could go on forever. trying each door as I went. I was looking outside. I chose one with another staircase. and the minute hand shifted forward. There was nothing up there. a wave of sickness swept over me and I felt lightheaded. I knew the doors at the far end and at the side led outdoors. every clock in the world. I sat down on one. I got back to normal. There were more doors leading off this room. There was a wooden walkway across. This was starting to creep me out. my mind. with a wrench to my guts. others gathered near the tree. the light just picking out the bottom of some stone steps twisting up ’round a central pillar. just a flat roof and an empty . isn’t it? And sitting there. the numbers were me and I was them. It’s bad at the best of times. me. to warm up the air as it went inside. One room was different from the others. The room would suffocate me if I stayed a minute longer. You could only see a few steps ahead. would they even exist? The lever running along the wall gave another lurch and the minute hand thunked forward again. Again. and then on and up. It was like sitting inside the moon. Even sitting down. you could see the shape of things: pews. a blank wall in front of me. My legs were pretty wobbly. with odd ridges sticking up. That helped a bit. I saw something that no one else saw. period. I’d smash every watch. it was carved into a pattern. trying to psyche myself up. “Come on. a switch. Then one of the metal rods feeding into it clicked. I had to get out of there. Again. There were stone ledges running along either sidewall. and. Once your eyes adjusted. A little stone wall ran down each side of the roof. lit up by the soft streetlight. across the walkway. giving one of them a good yank. the keys did the job. and arches. suspended above a stone floor that dropped away on both sides. From up here. to the top. The stairs just ended. The far wall contained a big. I was the only one to see the numbers. when anyone could see that there was someone at the middle of all this. Me. I was breathing hard from the climb. Thousands. even I could see that. I didn’t think I could go up there in the dark. keeping my face turned to the clock — it made me smile. Whether they were real or imagined.” I said. Holding on to the stone. They were bell ropes. On and on. Another staircase. the walls. That’s exactly what it was — the other side of the fan shapes in the abbey ceiling. It was darker in here. dizzy. Suddenly. statues. and I didn’t twig what they were until I saw a photo on the wall labeled ABBEY BELL — RINGERS 1954. I sprang up and started running. that’s what they say. This one revealed a tiny room. I stepped through and smiled. too. and I was through. In the yard next to the abbey. I could see through to the rooftops all ’round me. squares. that — but as I stepped out onto the roof. I scuttled along until I reached another door. spires. All over the world. it was all roofs and chimneys. to one side of the altar. all in shades of gray. Spider was back in my head. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up — I felt like I was in a secret world. Another door at the end of the walkway. it came to me: I was blaming the wrong thing. But would it do any good? Don’t shoot the messenger. even though it was freezing outside.
but the numbers were still there: Mum’s. just bumped and crawled my way all the way down into the abbey and then across the cold floor into the vestry. From far down below. a crowd of puppets.flagpole. This far away. they weren’t tourists down there. square and green. . they were actually waiting to see me. Who was I kidding? I couldn’t jump off there — my strength and my nerve had gone. it felt like you could dive off the tower right into it. From here. I couldn’t even manage the stairs. floodlit faces were turned upward now. one at a time. The ground below seemed to be moving. All you’d need to do was climb up on the little wall and jump…. “There she is!” In the abbey yard. swimming and shifting in front of my eyes. infecting me. And it struck me. I’ve no idea how long it took — I didn’t lock the door behind me. Someone screamed. turquoise water lit from below. a voice drifted up to me. the old tramp’s. they all looked the same. And immediately below me. the pain. the guilt. the people merging into a random pattern. Another stone wall ran ’round the edge. with statues ’round the edge and steam gently rising up from it. The view was even better up here — the orange lights of the town sprawling up into hills all around. And Spider’s. You could dive down and wipe it all away: the memories. and shut my eyes tightly. the bomb victims’. There was a swimming pool on one of the roofs. My legs were so wobbly now. next to Karen. So I bumped down them on my butt. I curled up in my makeshift bed. suddenly making me afraid. Karen’s. their terror drifting up to me a split second after it had left them. another pool. My legs gave way and I sank down.
06082011. A woman’s voice was speaking to me. then swallowed hard and turned away. and I’m an adult.CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE “It’s all right. Anne probably just thought I was rude. Too many things to think about. and about Spider. On the tower. “You should eat something…. on top of the tower. He was paler than ever. she would have. “Jem was out there on the roof. There was something else. listening. You’re still a child. Try a bit of toast. Here we are. shifting his weight from foot to foot and wringing his hands. blinking back the hurt I’d caused. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble. I really did.” “Have some tea. which were lying on the table. “Yes. I couldn’t do it. but there was . while Anne poured more tea. “It is. So I said nothing. I burst out laughing. Jem. I sighed. “Sit down here. It was the first time our eyes had actually met. I glanced up at her.” “You what?” spluttered Karen.” She unwrapped a foil parcel. who sat at the back of the room.” he said. Jem. folding the top of the foil over. Simon. She must have taken the keys. “Simon. “Sorry. frowning. say normal things. “When you’d gone to sleep. rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. like I’d rejected her or something. green water of sleep toward the light. Less than a year to go. “You were seen last night. “Yes. cut into triangles. “Stood up a bit quickly?” Anne had her arm half around me. yes. I swung my legs out onto the floor and heaved myself to my feet.” He winced.” Standing there. It’s an amazing place.” I stayed quiet.” I said quickly. looking hurt.” she said. swallowing back the sour stuff at the back of my throat. then. She was trying to sound normal. I brought the edges of the foil together. which for me was a big deal. And suddenly her nervousness started to make sense. “Shall I put on the kettle as well? You and Karen can have a cup of tea. Maybe in a bit. Sure enough. plain as day. hiding its contents away again. and Karen was already up. I liked him. Haven’t you ever wandered about here on your own?” This to Simon. couldn’t eat any — it actually turned my stomach to look at it. Here. Simon stayed standing. through the green. you’ve been really kind to me. “I’ve brought some juice. he came out with it. For Christ’s sake. Just for a moment. What was she afraid of? I felt embarrassed. there it was. She looked at me. would you like one?” There was a shakiness in her voice that I couldn’t put my finger on. I’m…responsible. and seemed intent on hovering there. I wanted to tell her to leave me alone.” He scuttled out. Finally. It was a very dangerous thing to do — to go up there on your own. at a disadvantage. Stephen will be in shortly.” I swam up to the surface again. too: men in dark suits. I’m not hungry yet. “I couldn’t help exploring last night. Karen sat in on the questioning. “but that’s different. I’d be completely in the shit without you. whether she understood why or not.” She put four mugs down on the table and joined Karen and me. I’d only just woken up. Her number. “Um. that’s it. but there was something about that word — responsible. “I’ll go and check that everything’s locked up and get things ready. I sat up. a rabbit caught in the headlights. as the police went over and over the same ground as the day before. it was only a piece of toast.” he said. and she was standing there. “The police will be back soon. there were questions about the day at the London Eye.” He was watching me carefully. I stalled them for a bit while I tried to figure out what they really wanted to know. she was scared of what I knew. though. I couldn’t get comfortable.” His face softened. Imogen. so I took a look around. At some level.” said Anne. these people seeing me in bed. and I clutched the edge of the table to stop myself from falling. it was difficult to imagine anyone his age looking more innocent or vulnerable. sealing the parcel of toast. And I shouldn’t have used those keys.” He picked up the keys. of course. There were other people. Simon and me. “I didn’t mean to laugh. His pale blue eyes widened with the shock of being laughed at and then brimmed with tears. but the tremor in her voice made her sound afraid. but kept looking. supporting me. Questions are being asked. I got the feeling that if she could have used tongs. He kept licking his lips. You don’t look like you’ve been eating much. it went red and then black behind my eyes. What was I doing? This was the guy who rescued me. although she held me away from her body. the one who gave me sanctuary just in the nick of time. and from somewhere a long way away my memory started to put the pieces back together. and though I tried to ignore it. too. the police came back. I’d eat if I felt like it. Anne was over by the table. It’s only us. but a little voice inside me was telling me to shut up.” “When was this?” Karen asked. that she was trying to be kind. and the social worker. There was a little pile of toast inside.
Jem. “This is stupid. too.” The guy in the suit leaned forward. here.” They sat up then. when the door opened again. “You’ll bring Spider here?” He nodded. One of them produced a set of photographs from his briefcase. But I had to stay focused — everything was going according to plan. I can tell you about the guy with the tattoos and why he was chasing us. You’re looking at some serious charges here. How long has this one got? Or this one? Can you tell me?” They went on and on.” “And you’ll provide us with a car and some money like I said?” He nodded again.” They were excited now. I would tell the police what they wanted to know. and they would bring Spider to me before the fifteenth of December and provide us with safe passage out of the abbey. “I’m going to get back to the boys now. until I was hearing that edge of stress and frustration in their voices again. saying nothing. They need me. That right?” I looked down.” He didn’t faze me at all. “Look at these photos and tell me what you see. this has got to stop. At this point.” “Jem. I asked Karen to check it. Interesting stuff. Not being great at reading.” She gave me a big hug before she left. They’d have to bring Spider here. and then they’d have to keep their side of the bargain. and some money. I can give you a description. too. I need them to bring Spider here. I’ll make a full statement. “I don’t think you realize what trouble you and your mate are in. And you’re to ring if you need anything. . Let me take you home and look after you.” She sighed. “Imogen and Anne will be here with you. “Actually. “After you’ve given us a full statement. too. I’d thought this all through — they needed me to talk. and we want you to leave us alone and let us get out of here. but she refused. I can tell you everything you want to know.” My stomach flipped over. and I’m pretty sure I saw the bloke who was carrying the bomb.” “OK. I know you want to solve the bombing. Like the reason why you ran from the Embankment. Then I spoke. “I want you to sign it.” one of them said. I don’t want anything to do with it. I couldn’t believe it — I’d won. We didn’t exactly see eye to eye — perhaps we never would — but she meant well. All I had to do was tell them what they wanted to know.” “No! It’s not gonna happen. and I will. “Yes. I even spoke to him. You’re not in a position to negotiate. and then we want a car. I’ll come back tomorrow. there in black and white. I think I am. almost drooling. a thousand should do it.” I said. To be honest. wouldn’t you? Is he here for the next ten years or going to be taken out by a sniper’s bullet? Does that interest you?” “We’ll need to talk about this. “We’ve been hearing stuff about you. Jem.” And that’s what I got. “I want it all in writing. and I could tell she was about to launch into another weary lecture. “it’s a deal. “What are you saying?” “I told you yesterday.other stuff. I felt a little twinge as she left. don’t you? And you’d love to know whether your prime minister’s got a future. Spider.” She watched while I signed the paper and then announced. if you bring my mate. They’re saying you can predict the future? You can tell when people are going to die.” He scraped his chair back and went outside with the others. I could see that now. Someone had obviously told them about the numbers. I took my time. I can even tell you about these pictures. These tall tales — it’s gone far enough now. “I could tell you. I was there at the London Eye. but it seemed OK. “What are you doing?” she asked. Stop saying these things. Karen stayed behind. and I’m not budging until they do. the police took a step back and the men in suits came and sat at the table. looked quickly at each other — little triumphant glances — and then back at me. “OK. but there was something in the way that the two policemen behind him looked at each other that made me suspicious. “I can tell you. The men in suits were back.” I said quickly. A legal agreement. You just didn’t believe me. Jem.
That’s a good sign. but kind of hung around. “So when do I see Spider?” I said when I’d signed the statement. the rector’s wife. Suddenly. with a tape recorder going. “Oh?” I said. “Jem. Eventually. I had no problem putting my name to it. I’ve got an illness. She wants to persuade me to leave. like she was waiting for something. But everything else.CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR I gave them exactly what they were waiting to hear. “Well. Nineteen and twenty-two. make sure the children are OK. I thought of Britney. you know.” “Children?” Another shock. I’m going to take your statement back to London. “You do know.” So it was going to be a few hours. love. “They’re saying…they’re saying that you can tell when people are going to die. threatening to burst out and trickle down her face. 06082011. Maybe it was going to be lonely nights. But I want to make sure they’re well set. She went up to the door and closed it. it’s all right. then. So I can plan things. her need for contact was too strong. made me think I might have been wrong about him earlier.” she repeated. so please…don’t…” Hearing her speak the rector’s — her husband’s — name made him more human. None of their sodding business what had happened between Spider and me. Didn’t bother me one way or the other. They’re showing that they’ve made a deal with me. though. lost in her own thoughts for a bit. takeout and boiled eggs on his own in an empty house. so that we were alone together in the vestry. try and pay up the college debts. had brought me some scrambled eggs on toast. see how they’re getting on. She didn’t eat with me. They gathered their stuff together. should I? ‘In the true and certain knowledge of eternal life’…” There were tears in the corners of her eyes now. They talked to me. Yes. “I can’t tell you. “I shouldn’t feel so scared. I had to trust them now — what else could I do? By now it was lunchtime and Anne. I tried not to look. “Stephen?” I nodded. Nothing I could do about that.” “Now just wait a minute…” “No. but I’ll feel happier if there aren’t any loose ends. How long I’ve got. It wouldn’t be right. She sat. He was taken back to London. That was between us. “I’m ill. Happier…not happy…” She trailed off. like we were business partners or something. “Well. “Why isn’t that a comfort?” I was the last person to ask about that.” I said. she squeezed some words out awkwardly. they’re pretty grown-up now.” She must have realized that I didn’t. But I was wrong. “It’ll take a bit of arranging — they’re still interviewing him. but maybe he wasn’t going to be spoiled for the rest of his life. can I talk to you?” I shrugged. kept warm under a wrapping of silver foil. perhaps you don’t. they shook hands with me. how her family had come to terms with her brother’s illness. “I think you should tell him.” Her face was creased into a frown as she searched my face. he was going to live for another thirty years or so. plus some “information” of my own about people in the photos they showed me. but I couldn’t avoid her eyes. This was all part of the plan. I thought. “The thing is…I need to know.” “You do know. and then they wrote it all down and got me to sign it. . just me and her. willing her not to ask me. and then I’ll be back. taking me one step nearer to where I wanted to be. Jem. and were gone. I’ll bring Dawson back here. of course. I held some of it back. make sure that Stephen will be all right. I thought.” I chewed my lip. I’m causing her husband too much trouble. I haven’t told Stephen. Paddington Green. On the way out. because she laughed nervously. clipped their briefcases shut.
Jem. “It’s just rumors. I’d spent a lifetime making sure there was space between me and everyone else. to take her pain away from me.” Her voice quavered. Jem. you have. People’s futures. I just wanted to be left alone. the girl they’re all talking about?” “I dunno. “I cut it on some barbed wire. and she leaned forward and held her hankie tight against her eyes. I can’t explain to you how odd it was to have a stranger sitting up close to me. trying not to tread on the names of the dead. God bless you. “Are you Jem. while it’s still a secret. but it had also been difficult not to join in. like she was shaking away the despair. The strength of this woman’s longing stopped me. Physical contact with anyone made me make a face. a good team. I wanted to push her away. right up close to me on the cushioned stone bench. Jem. the walls of the vestry started to close in on me. And I was. It didn’t put her off. gasping when she saw the red. and there are all sorts of stories on the Internet. “Do you mind if I sit down? I’m a bit…tired. “they’re saying that you can see the future. with a few tufts of hair here and there. “I am Jem. she felt the scar on my hand and turned it over.” she carried on. I should never. I wandered out into the abbey. and I met her gaze and I did see her future.” “You’ve been on the news. smoothed down her skirt. kept my eyes down at my hands and my feet. or at least her end. When she’d started crying. show my revulsion. for an hour or so — well. She went to open the door. In fact.“I know. “I know he’s a bit pompous — severe. I put my hand on top of hers and gently moved it away. “The thing is.” To be honest. stupid girl. though — perhaps somewhere deep inside me I was a decent person after all. And then. and then unwound it. putting up walls. I’ve got to…I need to…” She took the hint and stood up. After a few minutes.” I muttered.” I said. How on earth will he cope without me?” The tears were coming for real now. Except with Spider. “Excuse me. “I’m sorry. Suddenly.” I felt trapped. I needed a bit of breathing space. I waited until she stopped and was sitting up again. it had been dead embarrassing. but I don’t know about anything else.” She was standing in front of me. “Can you?” she said. And I thought. Her fingers closed on mine. too. move away. that’s all. Everything had been different with him. I had a pretty good idea where this conversation was heading. She reached out to touch my hand. but she sat down anyway.” As far as I could see. “You know what people are like. and I fought the urge to snatch them away. even — but we’ve been so strong together. I did mind. I just wanted her to let go. “Thank you.” “But there’s something. it doesn’t seem so real. It’s given me the courage. tell her to back off. Her tears at the thought of dying mirrored my creeping horror of being left alone. the hunt for you. “You’re joking!” I said. Sometimes I can pretend it’s not happening.” She was searching my face. the other thing is — it will break his heart.” She stopped and looked at me. I stood up. Two sides of the same coin.” I said. never have told anyone — it should have been my secret right to the end. “Please tell me what you know. You stupid. gathering her bag and her scarf. she did. useless. she reached up and picked at the end of her scarf. “Oh. I can take it. I’m sorry. After a while. I said nothing. nearly bald. I tried not to look at her. For a start. “I’m sorry I can’t help. Just telling you has made it easier to face. a woman wearing a head scarf came up to me. of course.” This was too much now. I really was.” she said uncertainly. the place where I’d sat to get warm the morning Simon had let me in. I’ve put it off. She stood up. That’s all. I felt completely useless. She started to wind it ’round her head again. revealing her scalp. angry tear from the barbed wire. wanting to touch me. I hadn’t done anything. . That’s why you ran away from the Eye. like she was trying to force the tears to stay inside. Two and a half years away.” I shook my head.” She continued to cradle my hand in hers. There were quite a few people around. and I didn’t want to get into all that. but you have. “What?” “The mark of the cross on your hand. isn’t there? There’s something different about you.” She grabbed my hands. It made her look shockingly naked. I couldn’t say anything. and I had a feeling that several of them had clocked me as I walked over the memorial stones. “Can you see into the future?” I was squirming in my seat now. for a few minutes. and shook her head. like she’d find some sort of answer there. “I can’t tell you anything. kept my mouth shut. but her legs were starting to sag. I was in the chapel.
When he saw me. gently coaxing the old man to sit in a pew. and headed straight for me. . the truth. so before he could say anything I turned quickly away and walked back into the vestry. “Let us help you. He had four weeks. Simon was standing with his back to me. the man broke off in midsentence. halfway down the main aisle. fiddling with her scarf. but I saw his number as he came staggering up toward me. I left her there. I knew from the look on his face. Relieved. and blundered out into the main church. Come and sit over here. I slammed the door behind me. her emotions too near the surface now for her to speak. And I knew I couldn’t give it to him. Would you like a drink of water?” Simon and one of the ushers had swooped in. A date. She pressed her lips together into a line and nodded. He was so thin his skeleton was showing through his skin. pushed past Simon. and I meant it. talking to an old man. I tried to avoid looking at him.” I said.“I’m sorry I can’t help you. and his eyes were almost glassy. it was obvious what he wanted from me. sir. As I reached the door I heard a voice.
What if that knowledge. Jem. long after it had grown dark. a business transaction. anyway — see if you fancy it in a bit. paying her twenty quid to feed her habit. Maybe it’s not so much a gift to you. “Nice to see you eat. I turned over on my makeshift mattress. So I just grunted and shut up. Simon came to tell me while Anne and I were having breakfast. look at anyone.” “God loves you. enough already. That’s what you made me realize earlier. It’s doing a number on me. “What are you talking about? If God loves me so much. or give me a big zit on my chin?” “He gave you the gift of life. Anne was — I only managed to sip some tea. but I stayed curled up all afternoon.” she said when I’d finished. I can’t go anywhere.CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE I think the ushers. We had another bowl of soup each and then tucked into bed. why did He let my mum die of an overdose. “You mean someone has given me this. who volunteered to stay with me for the night. It wasn’t what Anne wanted to hear. He’ll give you the strength.” “It’s hard. disoriented.” “You’re a witness. and now.” “But everyone knows that anyway. And people brought me food and tried to talk to me. put a blanket over me. That our days here are numbered. “You’re carrying a great burden. isn’t it? But perhaps you should view it as a gift. Well.” “I’ll pour some out. do anything. maybe the police. Just after the abbey bells had chimed eight. The next morning. Whichever way I thought about it. I can’t deal with it anymore. or put my hand on some bird shit. I sat up slowly. I was the result of a quick shag in a dingy flat. with my secret out. knowing your own death date. I got up slowly and joined her. I must have done something bloody awful to deserve it. locked in a silent circle. there was a queue of fifty. It was delicious. drove you to despair. I might have mellowed over the past week or so. would I take it? The answer had to be no. you’re telling me. My mind kept going back to the two people in the abbey. We choose to forget. homemade. and eventually.” I snorted. and you killed yourself before then? Could that happen? Could you cheat the numbers by choosing to go early? Perhaps Spider was right. I steadily worked my way through it. it seemed even more important. If I had the chance to find out when I was going to die. aren’t you? It must be dreadful for you. “There are a lot of people here today. “I don’t get it. there weren’t that many people who would want to know anyway. but choose to forget — it’s too difficult to deal with. why did He give me to a string of people who didn’t care about me. it would never be right to tell someone their number.” “We know. with her bowl in front of her. “I don’t know. didn’t it? Why would you want to carry that around with you? And surely knowing about it would change the whole thing anyway. but I tried just a little of the soup. I’d known that instinctively all along. Surely. that there’s so little time.” Oh. “I brought some soup in a flask. You bear witness to the fact that we’re all mortal. I allowed them to take off my sneakers. I managed to stop myself from saying that actually that was my mum and one of any number of punters.” She sat at the table. they left me. All except Anne. I wish I didn’t see the numbers. Do you want some?” I felt queasy.” I nodded. I thought as I drifted off. I heard her pottering about. “I wish it didn’t happen.” She’d lost me now. why did He make me twist my ankle. maybe they could change. and to Anne herself.” There was no answer to that one. without being reminded. and I didn’t want to upset her. kept everyone else away that day. Jem.” “Yeah.” . I wasn’t really hungry. but a gift to all of us. Jem.” “God may have given it to you. but the old Jem wasn’t far beneath the surface.
Jem. This isn’t the ideal place to stay. Vic Lovell.” “And what do you want?” I looked at his camel-colored overcoat. even if I was still stuck in Britney’s slightlytoo-large clothes. and washed as best I could with soap and water from the sink. I don’t want to. You can have everything you want — clothes. I can’t see them. making a beeline straight for me. you’ve got an amazing story to tell. cars. Anne pottered about. stripped down. “Whatever.” Finally.” “I’m not going back to Karen’s. Jem. When I’ve cleaned up in here. We’re talking hundreds of thousands here. grabbed my hand. We’ll deal with it. I felt really rotten. “What?” I said. parties. his energy. Our team here can counsel them. there’s people who can help — you just need to talk to them and they do the rest.” “Please. he stopped. He started talking even before he took off his coat. You’re not old enough to be out there on your own. I wanted to look nice for him. horrible permed hair.” He shrugged. “We can keep them away from you. He was after something else. Where you want to go. As I emerged from the cloakroom with bare feet and a towel ’round my head. I’m here to talk to you about your future. how are you? You’re looking a bit better than last time. you could get overexposed or miss a key offer — but done the right way. “you need to think about what happens next. This is it. “I dunno. He gave me a broad smile and nodded encouragingly at me. and short. you’ve got it. I can make you rich. This is your moment. practically shouldered Karen out of the way.” Simon disappeared to make the arrangements. I’ll come out and help.” I suddenly realized I hadn’t had a proper wash since my shower at Britney’s. Instantly. It’s all gone crazy. And then…and then. I’m certain we can get a major magazine deal. “Now. that wash — I got rid of that sickly. it’s a lot to take in. “Hi. “People out there are desperate to see you. the fat gold signet ring on his finger. radio. Jem. But she wasn’t ordinary. It’s all about you. too. boots. Even I couldn’t scoff at that. After today. “What do you think? Are we going to be partners?” Still reeling from his verbal attack. At least I could be clean. You name it. “I want to help you. standing there: crewneck sweater. you’re made for life. We’re used to dealing with people in crisis. can we not get into this? I don’t know what I’m doing until Spider gets here. Jem. Karen had reappeared. The world wants to hear from you now. good to meet you. but kept both hands on my shoulders. Don’t worry. I only wanted to know about one visitor — today they had to bring Spider back to me. “Karen will be here soon — I think the consensus is that you should go back home with her.” He strode across the room with his hand thrust out. and the Rolex half-hidden by his crisp white shirt cuff.” “I know what I want to happen — I want some time with my friend. Not yet. He wasn’t after my help. She was prepared to sit all day and hear other people’s terror as she struggled with her own. I’ve had some amazing offers coming in for you. She can help you through all the legal stuff. I couldn’t wait to see him now — I’d never looked forward to anything so much in my life. and there are already publishers desperate to talk to you. “Jem. corduroy skirt. “What do they expect me to do? I’m a kid. You’re young. worn-out feeling.” She looked so ordinary. the whole world is talking about you. “Jem. which is looking very bright indeed. and TV interviews lined up. trips. if they decide to bring charges. so that I can manage all this for you.” . It woke me up. Literally. She really cares.” She held me away from her. Back in the vestry. but I think you should think carefully before doing anything.” Anne agreed. she came over to hug me.” “You’re fifteen. I’ve got nothing to say to them. and besides.” she said. But the important thing is that I need you to sign up with me. Respect. I just shrugged and said. washing up the cups and her breakfast dishes. because —” She didn’t get a chance to finish because at that moment the door from the abbey burst open and a blingy middle-aged bloke breezed in. “That’s right. She knows you. This will cover the next couple of months. If it’s not carefully managed. I wouldn’t expect you to sit and write it. It was more than I would be able to manage. We’ve got print. and if we play this carefully.” “That’s fine. I dunno…” The truth was I’d stopped even thinking about life after the fifteenth. “I know. the room was full of him — his presence. I was tired. Jem.It was just what I didn’t want to hear. Jem. isn’t it? Perhaps you don’t really understand what I mean. I took myself off into the little cloakroom. as I said. you can be set up for life. and shook it vigorously. and then we need to get a book out.” And he was off again.
Fuck off.“And you get…?” “A percentage. I don’t want any of it — I don’t want your help. I don’t want fame. His kind of world — it’s a fantasy. then shut it again and came over to give me a hug. “What do you think. it’ll just get worse. Now that it’s out there.” .” “But I could get you things — a bigger house. It’ll be alright. with the wallpaper peeling off the damp patch in the kitchen. wouldn’t they?” she said. I know that. “They’d like that. I’m going to leave you to talk it over with your mum here. Jem.” Her face softened.” I said.” He held up his hands. She’d struggled all her life without money. Give you a bit of space. “I don’t want your money.” “How?” She looked straight at me. I don’t want to be a poxy celebrity. I’ll be right outside. “But it won’t. I grinned at her. We’ll be in this together. with more of a garden for the boys. “I’m not a charity. You can’t walk away from this.” “You what?” “Fuck off. I should never have told anyone. it’s not real. “Let’s not be hasty. You’re under a lot of stress here. “I want it all to go away. clear-eyed. “You know what I feel about all this. I thought of her little house back in London. Perhaps this guy could make sure that those last ones were the best years of her life. Karen?” She shook her head.” “No.” He looked at me like I’d lost my marbles. If you start giving interviews and writing books. he still had another thirty years of hustling.” He fixed his hard gray eyes on me. “You have no idea what you’re saying.” “I think you could stop it yourself. there’s no stopping it. is it?” Maybe she did know me after all. but I eased away. Jem — that’s not what you really want. “I don’t want any of it. “But you don’t have to get me anything.” “It’s alright. And I want you to leave.” She was still holding me. “No — it’s all bullshit. You’d be mad to. I know what I want.” Karen opened her mouth to object to the language.” “I know what I’m doing. middle-aged as he was. Jem. It’s gone too far already. I know you.” Sitting in the corner. wheeling and dealing ahead. of course. We’re alright where we are. That it’s not true. I couldn’t avoid seeing that. Karen had been watching all this. “Just tell them…tell them you made it all up. What would it mean to her if I went along with all this? I knew she only had a few years to go. will it? This sort of thing feeds on itself.” I spat it out like a swearword.
let’s do it. if it gets it over with…. “Good girl. “Get off me!” I yelled. “Weren’t you listening to me in there?” he asked. and she was pleased now that I was owning up. all keeping near to the vestry door. That hadn’t exactly turned out well. “She’s neither. or end.” His voice was pitched low now. Come on. and I’m not going to do a deal with you. at least the truth as I saw it. watching. I’m glad. I’m not interested. We walked out of the vestry and into the abbey. You’re much better with some specifically negotiated one-to-ones. And one thing to tell them: a barefaced lie. “You’ve got something to say. Our young…guest…here at the abbey has a few words to say to you. . “Oh.” When was that? A month ago? I couldn’t remember.” Anne glanced worriedly at Karen. and she’s made her own decision. but his grip was pretty viselike. As soon as I appeared.” Vic did move away then. and people started moving toward me. let’s get you back to the vestry. but he didn’t back off. Now I’d like you to leave her alone. and puzzled. A sea of faces met me — a sea of numbers.” said Karen firmly. “Yes. but it only brought me to the head height of most of the crowd. the noise level rose. God knows who else — and call myself a liar. This farrago has gone on long enough.” He removed his hand. like he didn’t understand what I was saying. I had nothing prepared: no clever words. “I don’t belong to you. but Stephen nodded and looked relieved. “Where’s the best place?” “Well—” Stephen started to say. I’d stood up at the front of the classroom that day.CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX The last time I’d had to stand up and talk to a group of people had been back at school: “My Best Day Ever. Now I was getting ready to stand up in front of a crowd of strangers — the sick and dying. Karen steered me through them toward the front of the abbey. and then retreated down the stairs. We need careful media handling with a story like this. “I can’t believe someone would waste such an opportunity. have you?” Stephen was asking. he leaned in close to me. “What about up there? There’s a microphone. in the dark wooden pulpit of Bath Abbey.” Karen gave my arm a squeeze. Well. please find a seat. I think she honestly felt I was coming clean. when the pushy agent guy elbowed his way to the front and butted in.” she said.” He led me up some steps and suddenly I was there.” Karen told them. You can speak from here. I made the mistake of looking down. there were way more than fifty people there now. “She’s her own person. but he didn’t leave the abbey. You’re either very naïve or very stupid. he stayed at the back of the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen. I was going to deny the truth that had dogged me my whole life.” He put his hand on my arm. A hush fell over the crowd. I tried to shrug him off. Now get your hand off me. “That would be completely inappropriate…. and I’d told the truth. “OK. But you weren’t. no speech. the rector. “Good. “Jem wants to make a statement. It looked like there were hundreds milling around.” He spread out his arm. I think it’s time…time I stopped wasting everyone else’s time. people like that agent. I was listening.” he started to bluster. too. I took a couple of deep breaths. or I’ll bite it.” He looked genuinely shocked. where Anne was standing with Stephen. You never let me get a word in edgewise.” There was a slight step up into the part where the choir sat. “Yeah. inviting me to step forward and speak. journalists. Instead. his voice booming out across the pews. no beginning. middle. He switched on the microphone and introduced me. then thought better of it. I looked up at the pulpit.” He went redder in the face. She’d never believed me. very well. “I’d totally advise against a general statement. but Karen and the others had heard him.
my feet nearly slipping on the polished tiles. And I suppose you’re here because you think that I might tell you. too. then you should appreciate every damn second with them…. We shouldn’t let it stop us from living. five years ago. and everyone outside. I’m just a kid. “I missed you. And the one behind. Other people started clapping. I backed away from the microphone and stumbled down the steps. People were starting to call out — it wasn’t what they’d wanted to hear. that’s all. You can all go home now — there’s nothing to see here.” I turned to make my way down the stairs. I swallowed hard and continued. I turned back and scanned the crowd. a door opened.” I paused. I can tell you what you came here for.” He flung his arms up in the air then. “You’re all alive. and above us.” Spider had come to a halt now. cheering. “I only left you for a few days and you’ve turned into a preacher! Here”—he bent his face down to mine —“come here. . It couldn’t be. “You’re dying. looking up at me. way taller than the rest of them. clinging like a limpet. about halfway down the church. too. with his head bobbing and nodding to a rhythm all its own. but also. ridiculously tall. I went back to the microphone. Boy. “At least I don’t really know why you’re here.” And he kissed me. swinging me up and around before holding me close. You’ve been given another day. If you’ve got that. there was no one else in the abbey for me. you’re alive and kicking. We all have. I’m a fake. the rods and levers clunked into place and the great abbey bells started to chime the hour. I swear it did.” She clapped her hands to her mouth.” The men walked over to the end of the main aisle and started moving toward the front. “And so is the guy next to you.” I said back. And so am I. There were angry shouts. man?” he laughed into my hair. Everyone in this church. “What’s going on. “I’m Jem. I wrapped my legs around him. talking directly to her. way up in the bell tower. he was clapping. But there’s something else.” No reaction. the one who’d touched my hand yesterday. “What did you expect from me?” I was looking at her. and let out a great whoop. a scream of genuine anguish — a terrible noise. a year ago. A group of men came in — policemen in uniform. when no one wanted to know me. There was one guy in the middle.” There was a collective gasp. but the whole crowd fell quiet again. You’ve been scammed. Right now. I didn’t care who was looking at me. in fact. I was talking to him now. “Especially if you’ve found someone who loves you — that’s the most important thing of all. in front of everyone. too. I couldn’t help feeling that I’d let her down. with that big. I ran toward him. Even though it was unfair of her to look to me for answers. “If you want. confused crowd. But I’ve got to tell you…I’ve got to tell you…that it’s all a lie. I’ve never kissed a vicar before. I made it up. only him. I launched myself at him and he gathered me in. Spider hadn’t moved. so tenderly. The lady screaming was the one in the head scarf. silly grin on his face. You don’t need me to tell you that.” At the back of the church. More gasps rippled through the church.“Hello. I suppose what’s different is that I’ve been saying stuff about knowing when people are going to die.” he breathed. He was just standing there. I’m sorry. eyes wide with shock. “I missed you. today. how many lenses or cameras were trained on me. We’re all dying. licked my lips.” I said. rising above the other noise. but we shouldn’t let that weigh us down. “Attention-seeking. “We know it’s all going to come to an end one day. through the clapping. but my mouth kept going. did that work. Could it? My heart stopped beating. that’s why you’re here. and then holding his arms out wide. But you know that. the same kid I was a month ago.
The only thing threatening him was me. and then I’d talk. I just don’t think it’s going to work out. but I can wait. Face it. Tattoo Face was gone.” I had to stop there. too. Spider. you’ve got that wrong. Except me.CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN “You’re OK. Leaning against him. over to the tower. thinking about you shut up in a cell. I had them unhooked from his waistband before he knew what I was doing. slammed it behind me. And the numbers had never been wrong. I went up until I found the bell-ringing room. We can do it another time. I was a witness to the end of particular people on particular days. You’re out. He wasn’t lying beaten up in a police cell. Nothing. but maybe not just in a general way. what the fuck…? Jem!” As I stepped out onto the roof. There is no more after today. probably you. I didn’t bother securing the last door — the other three or four would slow them down enough. breathing in his muskiness. “I don’t think we are. too. I’d no idea you were holed up in a church. I couldn’t expect the keys to be back in the drawer in the vestry. they didn’t go away. I suddenly got a sick. “Jem. Jem. I put both hands on the stone parapet to steady myself. and the wind buffeted at me. my clothes were soaked. but the number in my head was telling me that he was going to die today. They haven’t finished with me — they haven’t charged me yet. I don’t know if anyone else. Anne was right: I was a witness. It would be far too late by the time they got to me. ’Xpect they’ll take you an’ all. Whatever happens. Sometimes things are really simple — I love you and you love me. that was it. I’ll wait for you. “What you talking about? What car?” “That was one of my conditions — they had to bring you and a car and some money. horizontal rain lashed into me. “Kept thinking about you. as I was choking over the words. We’ll never make it to Weston. unchanging. saw them. “You can’t trust anyone. I just wrenched open the door.” He wiped his big hands over his face. Ignoring the other side doors. they’re gonna put me away this time.” “But that’s not right. This is it — we’ve got a few hours. I raced to the tower door. so many. and then they’re taking me back again. bit tired. and there was no one chasing us with a gun or a knife. just his number. Jem. There was nothing wrong with Spider. But it was there in my head as I climbed the spiral staircase. Are they bringing the car here?” He frowned. slipped through. There were so many keys. We’ll just have to make the most of it. anywhere in the world. my chest hurting with the effort. I stood up slowly and looked around. must be the deal you had. or if the numbers they saw were the same ones I saw. I knew what I had to do.” “But they agreed — they signed an agreement! It’s all legal!” “What you gonna do? Take them to court?” He shook his head. almost knocking me over. “Yeah. the number existed. That’s all we need. I’d made it happen — I’d drawn him back to me on the fifteenth of December 2010: 12152010. He was talking to Anne in one of the side aisles. We’ll never make it now. we can get through it. keys glinting in a big bunch at his waist. I could wait another fifteen if I needed to. “Don’t get upset. My legs were wobbly from the climb.” Why can’t things be like that? He loved me and I loved him. but…” How could I say it? But time’s run out. Once I was in the tower. They just brought me here for a few hours. but I got the right one. and locked it. I was breathing fast and hard. He put his long arm ’round me. I wanted to walk along the beach with you. They didn’t change. sick feeling. I ran up to him and lunged at the keys. There was only one way to deal with it. I saw the number and somehow I knew its message would come true. of course. Pushing him aside. not once. It’s less than thirty miles from here. second try. too. He wasn’t ill. I didn’t look back. isn’t it? I kept thinking about you. but once I’d seen one.” “But they lied. It was making me crazy. “But what?” “Just…just…I dunno. I was the number and the number was me. are you?” I searched his eyes for any signs of illness. But that’s it now. jeans flapping wetly around my legs. Can’t sleep in those cells. While I existed. have fish and chips like you said…. Especially the one I longed to hear.” “Nah. Wondering where you were. Like you said up there. The only way to cancel that number out was to remove the person who saw it. So we can carry on. . I waited fifteen years to find you. if you…?” “Of course I’ll wait for you. but I knew Simon always had some on him. ever present.” “’Course it is.” “It’s mad. Bastards! What are we gonna do now? How are we gonna get away from here?” He sighed. shutting out all the raised voices. In those few seconds. even the one I longed to hear. It doesn’t all have to be today. I locked the door at the top of the staircase and picked my way across. you should know that. then across and up the top staircase. Get to Weston.
I knew now for sure that I’d never be one of those people. I heard shouting. Perhaps. I wouldn’t let myself look down. with arms outstretched. 12152010. getting my balance. I waited until I’d caught my breath a bit. I crouched there for a second. had brought death and destruction to those around her. A girl who’d been stupid enough to start to believe in love. I had seen my own number. for fifteen years. The day I said good-bye to it all. Eyes on the horizon. using all the strength left in my arms. but not long enough to lose the adrenaline rushing through my veins. and who now knew that there was only one way to save the boy who loved her. defying the storm above them.From far below. I kept my eyes on the rooftops and the hills beyond. I gave a little jump and. . after all. It had been reflected in Spider’s eyes all along. got to my feet. I would never be anything other than what I was now — a girl who. The rooftop pool across from me contained a handful of swimmers. and then slowly. pulled myself up onto the stone wall.
They knew that in the scheme of things. “Jem! Please. I’m sorry. I don’t understand why you’d leave me. and yet. toes gripping even harder. Jem. It’s the only way.” He dropped down to the floor. we can do this. but the wind and the rain were mocking me. didn’t I? An explanation? “I’ve got to stop the numbers. “I don’t understand. and was I about to cheat it? I tried to focus. I was tiny. They’re inside me. please don’t. lying somewhere out there. can you? Please don’t tell me that…. You can’t tell me that none of it meant anything to you.” I owed him that. with the snot bubbling out of my nose. reeling on the edge. Why would you do that?” He was edging forward again.” He was inching toward me. to face the end with dignity. no!” His voice was thick with terror.” I was teetering on the brink now. carried away on the wind. You don’t understand. when I made contact with the ground? Would I actually hit the ground or the pitched roof? Was this really meant to happen? Was this my life. I’m the only one who sees them. jolting me back to our first meeting under the bridge. like diving into a pool. except it would suddenly change. my God. “It doesn’t have to end like this. We can be together now. saying stuff at the same time. they were putting me in my place. soaking me. Most of all. I’m so sorry. I need to do this. fifteen years and no more? Did I have a future. now. I didn’t want that — I needed to go through with this — it was the most important thing I would ever do. It’s wrong. I started to cry. that would have been the way to do it. He stopped. But not me. to feel his arms around me. “Wait. perhaps that number would no longer exist.” He was crying. and by blowing me around. Keep away from me. I raised myself up onto my toes. clutching at his springy hair. He was close now. It took a surprising amount of strength just to stay up there — the weather was blasting in from the front of me. We can still have something. I can’t stand men crying. “I don’t understand. don’t you. they kind of crumple. I could lean into it and not fall. he was there. I’d count myself out.” “But why? I don’t understand…please don’t. to bring all these random thoughts back to the important one: If I ended it now. and the way to do it was to go in style. I couldn’t hear him . as if that would help them grip on to the wet stone. at least.CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT My toes were curled inside my shoes. I have to do it. You and me. “It won’t be that bad. just for one last time — that sweet thought held me back. I didn’t just get up and jump. what I really wanted to hear. the wind would drop. stretched my arms out wide. and then I was flailing my arms about. I had to stand there for a bit with my mind full of stuff. waiting for me. If he reached out one of his long arms. “Keep away!” My words a high-pitched screech. too. spilling out of the staircase door in an untidy mess of arms and legs. I tried to stand as tall as I could. He was still hung up on hearts and flowers. trying to knock me back onto the flat roof behind. Oh. Prison. I can’t get rid of them. We can handle it. isn’t it? Their faces aren’t made for it. Jem.” I dropped my voice. please wait a minute. Jem. man. “Keep away. I don’t understand. please. “You want that. We had something. back to our night in the barn. held his hands up. I could stop the misery for a lot of people.” The rain was mixing with tears on my face. And then we can wipe the slate clean. speaking more to myself now than to him. Oh. it’s painful to watch. God. If no one saw his number any longer. to feel him again. there was a chance I could save Spider. Three…two… and yet. crouched into a ball. It doesn’t happen to people like us. Jem? I know you do. Spider. if I found that courage. Happily ever after.” But he didn’t get it. Numbers would see me through to the end. It’s a lie. I needed to do this. Jem? I don’t understand. Jem. Start again. I could smell his sweat — it flooded through me. I can’t explain. Spider. Even in the wind and the rain.” “It’s not that. it never happens. I guess my mistake was thinking. would the wind actually blow me backward? How long would it take to fall? Would I feel it. Spider. he’d be able to grab me. please. so close to me.” “I’ve got to do it. nothing. Jem.” “No. Spider. “I’ve got to do this. If I jumped. too.” His words were so seductive — he was the only person in the world who knew what to say to me. “Why would you leave me. He was sobbing. “Three…two…” “Jem!” I looked over my shoulder.
he was up on the wall. my warmth and love for him reflected right back to me.” He was ready to go. I don’t want anyone or anything else. just like he’d danced on the railway sleepers the first day we’d talked. I said nothing. “Solid. He’s tricking me. and slowly lowered myself back down. they’ve been the best time of my life. And then I suddenly thought. eventually they might go away. And then his foot slipped on the wet stone. right next to me. I didn’t want any loose ends. It was going to be alright. easy as anything. I can face anything with you. and his balance was gone. His fall and his back. too. safe. How many people meet the person they’re meant to be with? If we stayed indoors. he lay staring upward. enjoying the buzz of it.” His big grin had broken out again now. I’m freezing. It was so quick. and formed a fist. fuck it all.” I bent my knees. I always knew you were.” It’s a trick. big daft grin on his face. solid. and it was all in my head — what if the numbers didn’t mean anything at all? If I ignored them. I thought. a look of surprise on his face. He teetered on the edge for a split second. These last few weeks. and we held each other’s gaze. “I love you. after all.” Do you know what it’s like to hear those words? To hear the person you love telling you they love you. Whoo-hooh!” His whoop was whipped away on the wind. We’ll go together. man.” I said. man. surprised. eyes still on me. ready to jump down. “Whoa. Jem. fluid movement. hands desperately trying to get a grip on something. I just watched as he tipped over and over in the air. “I’m coming with you. His number would be right. “Look at it. Our eyes met. You can see for miles. man. Let’s go inside. Spider. “Yeah. “I had a blast with you. Spider?” He looked up at me. We could dive off there together. down by the canal. you silly sod. held out his hand. “Why won’t you help me?” he said. I love you. I looked into his eyes for the last time. did nothing.” he said.” He smiled at me. put my hands on the tops of the stones. thrashing his arms wildly…and then he was gone. There was no one there anymore. but he wasn’t looking back at me. Spread-eagled.properly. but I needed to know what he was saying. this is awesome.” In one easy. “What is it? What is it. What if Karen was right. I love you. I hope you do one day. When I looked up. “Get off there. They were still wide open. Fuck the numbers. “Safe.” He spun ’round to face me. “Give me your hand. maybe we could cheat the numbers after all. arms thrashing. He grabbed my hand. out of harm’s way. let go of my hand. falling backward. His fall was broken by the roof. “I can’t go on without you. If you really want to do this. too? If you don’t now. Spider was dancing along the top.” He got to his feet. Jem. His number had gone. that was the time to do it. while he wasn’t looking. Our knuckles touched. Help me up. so unreal. Don’t go without me. Jem. you’ll break your fucking neck. he couldn’t help himself. I should’ve jumped then. Spider and I could have our “happily ever after” ending. although someone did far down below. . There’ll be nothing left. I didn’t scream. He didn’t hit the ground. “You’re mental. lifeless. He tried to steady himself against the wind. I’ll do it with you. and I’d join mine with his.
She was angry with him.” She trailed off into silence. I’m fine. and so slow. Spaghetti Bolognese splattered on the walls. When you’re a bit better.” Her hands were trembling in her lap. The first time. either. breathing her stale. Say good-bye properly. to Weston. when I felt like it. but I insisted. didn’t he? If I could get my hands on him. I’d wring his neck…. trying to remember how it started. No hurry. Gave me a start. too. Well. empty. I’m glad he remembered…. And I’d let her down. Karen kept asking me. backward and forward. until one day I heard Karen going out to take the twins to school. and would lie there for hours. I did a little bald one right down by the skirting board. I was able to string words together now. too scared to scream or cry out. Karen was a regular visitor. smoky breath into my face. wasn’t he?” I wanted to tell her that I had known. we could take him there. “He said you two were heading to Weston. Jem?” She leaned forward.” she said. the deluded. I couldn’t speak. walls and ceiling: creatures with wings. but by the time we’d parked the car it had stopped.” “Darlin’. I’d taken him away. Didn’t know he remembered. but you know what I meant. that did. “Sss…sss…” “What is it. the doctor says you’re ready for a change. near to bleeding. everyone ’round me started saying they were pleased with my progress. “Are you alright?” “Yeah. I just wanted her to leave me alone. climbing up and falling down. They’d had the cremation without me — obviously they couldn’t put that off forever — but she’d kept the pot with his ashes in it until everyone felt I was strong enough to cope. saw my jaw moving as I forced my mouth to work. you know. I suppose. keeping me safe. One day she said. see. I didn’t mind that. She was talking. During the day. She’d waited until I was out of the hospital to do this. the screamers. too. an angel watching over me. when he was little. “Sss…sso…rry. What color do you want?” And so I went back to Sherwood Road. or an arm or a leg. I managed to get a word out the second time. “I sat in when they questioned him. She didn’t need to ask me any stupid questions. she still came back for more. each minute leading inevitably to the next. too. A sort of holiday. It had all happened just how I thought it would. fiddling with the unlit cigarette she was holding. “I’ll decorate it for you. So many chances to do something different. “I’ve been thinking. Clouds were racing across the sky like a speeded-up film clip. I stayed in my room and listened to music and stared at the walls. I should have kept him safe. Apart from you. sort of hunched up. in the police station. though — Christ knows why not. the wind whipping off the sea around us. and was managing to eat a few mouthfuls at each mealtime. I’d still wake up in the night. but I couldn’t hear what she was saying.” She picked at the side of her yellow thumbnail with her index finger.” Difficult to imagine a time when I’d been less fine. and despite the company I was keeping these days: the silent. to walls painted “Crème Caramel. I was all he had. I’d spent days forming it in my mind.CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE It had pissed down rain all the way over there. “Jem.” She’d come back again.” I didn’t notice anything getting any better. I couldn’t look her in the eye. not to her or anyone. love. knowing he wouldn’t be back. it’s not your fault. love.” warm and honey-colored. She stopped when she saw me lean forward. How were you to know? He was always doing daft things. you see. she’d trusted me with him.” She’d kept my old room free. she dropped the tray. tormented by nightmares. Come home. crushed under a huge weight. and I worked outward from there until they were everywhere. and the sad. so fast that you couldn’t stop it. She wasn’t angry with me. After a few weeks. though. The first one was by my bed. One of them had ridiculously long limbs and springy Afro hair — I put him at the top. They didn’t want me to — I’d been questioned. while in a chair in the corner another patient rocked backward and forward. and we sat there. sitting at the table with some paper and colored markers — I could do it for hours. Halfway down. Come home with me. Let me look after you for a bit. to change the path we were set on. She’d asked me to look after him. I should’ve…should’ve…should’ve… “I saw him. We can start again. We walked down the pier. I was responsible for him. what your mouth did to form the sound. it’s his own silly fault. I took him there. Only when you’re better. Jem. spreading his wings and flying across the ceiling. Val linked her arm through mine. the color of Bath stone. When Karen brought my dinner in. I’d played it over in my mind a thousand times. “Isn’t there a smoking room we could go to. She’d come to see me in the ward. Jem? This is killing me…. unable to close my eyes again. and I started drawing. My head was still trying to take it all in. wrapping her wings around herself. Some of them had their faces missing. despite me not talking the first time. The skin was very red. I was concentrating so hard on what I needed to get out. the nurses encouraged me to draw. “What was the silly sod doing? He had to show off. It’s not anybody’s fault. to start to let the feelings out. One day was much like the last to me: flat. no matter how often I kicked her. Fair play to her. she knew what I was going through. .
That was all that was left of him. He was always moving about.” “Right. but my fist was closed. “Look what you’ve done.” Karen licked her finger and held it up. I dunno. and she gave a little sob as she tipped the urn over. more calming. my precious boy. I’ve got some in me eye! Can you see it. A little line of gray ash built up on the edge of my fingers as I smoothed down my coat. Spider. knowing that they were there. Let’s have a look. I didn’t know for sure.” She pressed her lips together tightly. “Which way’s the wind blowing? We don’t want him…well. and ran my hand down the cloth. swelling out over my stomach. Safe. Inside me I felt that fluttering feeling again. I kept the last remaining particles of Spider safe in my hand. “Good-bye. and stepped forward. Except that you could still see some of my angels faintly under the paint. coats flapping in the breeze.” I was back in the hospital after that. It went in our hair and on our clothes. and when I came “home” again it had all been painted over—“Bluebell Haze” this time. you’re ruining my pictures. “I can’t. love. . I wasn’t ready. then. We stood there awkwardly for a bit.” “But you don’t understand. the other rubbing at her left eye.I grabbed a tissue and started wiping it off. “Do you want to do it. I’d kept them away for a long time. “Wait a minute. Just like his father. Karen?” Val stumbled back from the railing. I scraped it off with the other hand and put it in my palm. Hold it over this side. “Come back! “ I shouted to the sea.” said Karen. empty pot in one hand. Val. What do you do?” “Just tip it out. Val.” While Val blinked and gasped. near me. to say good-bye. Jem?” “Um. and so were they. apparently. You do it. and Karen peered at her face and dabbed her with a hankie. She had her body right up against the railing and held the pot out as far as she could. love. don’t leave me!” Karen and Val looked around and were instantly by my side.” Val took a deep breath.” I was really crying now. Terry. “Come here.” Her voice caught on her last words. always restless. I rested my arm on Val’s waist. We all put our arms around each other. and I found that comforting.” she said. “You never will be. “Bloody hell. It must have been five or six months later that we found ourselves at the end of the pier at Weston-Super-Mare. “Well. I can’t do it. Gray ash streaked out. “You let it out. trying to keep herself together. it’ll be OK. then Val said.” Tears were stabbing the back of my eyes. “It’s coming from over there. I watched a film of ash bob slowly away from us. I looked down at my coat. “Come back.” Val put her arm around me. “It’s alright. but they were there now. Hold it at arm’s length over the sea and tip it. There’s never a good time for it. but I had a pretty good idea it was a boy. a sad triangle. How could we have done that? Just thrown him away? I needed him with me. but a rogue gust of wind took some of it and blew it straight back at us.” She unscrewed the lid of the pot. we don’t want it going all over us. you silly bitch. I’m not ready yet. Good-bye. like little knives. Most of it fell onto and into the water. I didn’t have so many nightmares.
whatever it would bring. But Spider. she’d stood by me. we had some very bad days. what I hadn’t had for fifteen years: having real friends. I guess you could say I’ve moved on. I realized that I could face the future. desperate. “Mum. What if that’s what was meant to happen? What if I was meant to help her end it? As the day got nearer. Karen had collapsed in the street. I could remember them. too — she still had all her marbles. you’ll find me in playgrounds. Karen. I can see that it had got to be too much for both of us. I guess the strain of caring for her really got to me. crying her eyes out with the humiliation of it all. “I think we all do. though. It showed me what I was missing. Finally installed on the seat. loved him to pieces. . Anne. The numbers had stopped me from living.” I put some juice in a bottle for Adam and some tea in another one for Karen — like I said. It was just accepted that I’d look after her. It changed my whole outlook on life — I’d been so hung up on the numbers that I’d let them paralyze me. anyway. Anyway. too. looking back. I was over at the flat Social Services were offering me. I’m tired.” She tried moving it up to her face. forcing the words out. exhausting herself. I know it was. We both were. She kept having more strokes. It would be so easy to do it. I realized I couldn’t see them. Toward the end. She begged me to help her end it. I got more and more on edge. She tried to twist ’round. learning to trust people. I want a drink. her disability. It was what she wanted. and we could have a life together. I’ve done two things so far. isn’t it? Kids like me turn into parents like me. I helped Karen to lean forward and propped the pillow firmly behind her back. and that. and not in just the obvious ways — growing up. obviously. The thing was. I even packed my bags. I can’t tell you the number of times I nearly walked out. Jem. These days. when I got a phone call from the hospital. Jem. I’m not so different anymore. feed her. I can’t remember exactly when — just that. sedated. giving me a break when I was fed up. Stop it. “Let’s make a cup of tea. Then Adam came into the room. And our kids will turn into teenagers. that did. I couldn’t do it. Every time she got a little bit better. It’s all part of the normal pattern of things. open up a bit. managed to get hold of one of her pillows. really. They disappeared while I was pregnant — when I was in and out of the psychiatric ward. really got to her. it was like having two kids. And on and on. but she couldn’t manage. through being pregnant and then bringing Adam home. lean my weight in. That whole time with Spider. I could have Spider’s child. I figured I owed her. I didn’t forget the numbers that I’d already seen. Perhaps I let it all go on too long. The last few weeks. just couldn’t get the words out without a struggle. I mean. I wish I could tell you I’d done something great with my life — become a brain surgeon or a teacher or something — but you wouldn’t believe me. “No. So I knew when Karen was due to check out. although I couldn’t see the numbers anymore. I stayed with Karen and looked after her after she had her stroke. That day.FIVE YEARS LATER I don’t hang around the places where kids go skiving off anymore. Val — they changed that for me. I got her back to bed. I felt sad to lose something that had been a part of me for so long. “Please. too. I can see that now.” “Please. really hard. Karen. someone to have a laugh with. drugged up. They were gone. I sat with her and held the bottle up to her mouth. would you? I suppose. It was hard. Maybe I should have asked Social Services for help. I’ve had enough. “Just hold it. we had a dreadful time getting her settled. She was still upset. For a start. What would we do without her? Adam loved his nana.” I took the pillow out of her hands. falling in love. or waiting outside school. another one would come along and wipe out the progress. Her eyes brimmed over. I used to lie awake at night. on the beach. I’d known she only had three years to go. trying to look after Adam as well as dress Karen. She kept going on — wouldn’t talk about anything else. it changed me. She lost the twins — Social Services found them another home — broke her heart. The last time I took her to the toilet. take her to the toilet. press it up against her. She’d helped so much. Jem. and her illness. she was really depressed. But in the end. But everyone assumed that I’d stay with her and care for her. It took away something that I’d been dreading — the moment I would have to look in my newborn baby’s eyes and see his death date. I’m thirsty. she just slumped there. one day. It was frightening for her. Besides. in fact. torturing myself with these awful thoughts. darlin’. It was a massive stroke.” Pleading with her eyes. It was like having two kids. left her partially paralyzed down one side. down at the community center. having sex. I told her not to be so daft.” I said. showing me how to cope with him. Her speech went. and all those other people — Britney. She loved him. and then into parents themselves.” That snapped me out of it. so it shouldn’t have been a surprise. I was trying to sort out getting my own place. She didn’t know. made me realize I was wasting what time I did have. but she’d gone past logic — she was in a dark and lonely place. But I felt relieved. I knew she didn’t have long left. Looking back now.
we had a bit of a breakthrough. I’m a mum. I’d have laughed in your face.” he said. “I told you. But do you know what? It’s something that I can really do. You can’t keep your eyes off him for a minute — he’s into everything. just like Daddy. and by the end of it we’ve walked for miles and miles. We can spend an afternoon on the beach. a big one and a little one. And he’s always busy. I don’t think anyone thought he was taking it all in. That’s why I take him out so much. I wanted him to know about him.” “Like Daddy?” I was always telling Adam about his dad. She’s died. If you’d asked me five years ago if I thought I could be someone’s mum. Oh. There’s thousands. over and over at school. arching over like a rainbow. one to ten. The ambulance was there within ten minutes. but when it’s you. They’ve been learning the alphabet and counting. been a mum and a dad to him. “No. but it was too late. He’s tall. I’ve brought Adam up. He’s a lot like his dad. and sat him on my lap.” . She was gasping. “Yes. I took him into the front room. but I was so busy trying to help Karen. for a start. how special he was. above the head of the taller figure. And then it happened. I ran into the hall and grabbed the phone.” “I think he’s got his numbers and letters a bit confused. fighting for breath. Adam had seen it all. “We’ve talked about this. all arms and legs. I put everything down and slapped her on the back. “Me and Mummy at the beach. even when he was a baby. and Adam’s tired and ready for bed like a good boy.” I said. in bright crayons — the colors of summer. and be a good one at that. no. “everything seems better with a nice cup of tea. He nodded solemnly. The teachers at school have said that. Adam?” He shook his head and frowned. it feels like a big deal to look at your five-yearold son and know that he’s healthy and happy. He’d rather be climbing something or kicking a ball than sitting looking at a book. haven’t we. didn’t you. They were on a strip of yellow sand. He’s the kind of boy that needs to burn off some energy on the swings or running ’round the park. He’s a bit behind with all that stuff. It’s Mummy’s special number. I thought. I should’ve kept him out of the way.“That’s it. cooped up inside all day. Val says he’s the spitting image of him when he was little. and big smiles on their faces. “It’s you and Mummy. He’d drive me mad.” he said. and I can believe it. She started choking. It’s her number. and it’s something I’m proud of. and your own childhood wasn’t exactly rosy. Beautiful. Adam. Spider was right: There’s so much space here. at least not the way I was expecting: getting in a fight or being cheeky or whatever. I’m Adam’s mum. was some writing. it was. what’s he done now? but it wasn’t bad. and fed her. too. But just last week. There were two people holding hands. “I think you meant to write Mummy. That’s one of the reasons we moved out here to Weston after Karen died. It’s not her name.” She managed half a smile with the bit of her face that still moved. She’d gone. Miss. But I know that Adam really is. “What’s wrong with Nana?” he asked. We went into the classroom and his teacher showed me a drawing he’d done.” For there.” she said. darlin’. He’s not stupid. “but I’m very pleased with his pencil control. He finds it difficult to sit still. you see. and I dipped a biscuit into my tea so it was nice and soggy. I know I’m not unique doing this. I suppose everyone thinks that their child is special. millions of single parents. I couldn’t do nothing to help. “Yes.” That was the other thing I’ve been doing. isn’t it?” she asked him. “She’s gone. not got much concentration. with the sun in the sky above them. He came out of school and said his teacher wanted to see me. “Do you want some biscuit?” She nodded. not that that bothers me — I know he’ll get there in the end. this lovely picture?” she said.
and all staff at the Chicken House. . and colleagues who have taken a kindly interest in my writing: Jonathan for his encouragement and comments on the first draft. of course. Charles for showing me ’round Bath Abbey. Imogen. Dylan and Sparky for getting me up in the morning to write. Barry. family. and. all the lovely literary people at the Frome Festival.ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank all friends.
which is her debut novel. with her husband and their two sons.About the Author RACHEL WARD first won a writer’s award at a regional arts festival.com. Visit her at www. She lives in Bath.rachelwardbooks. . and her prizewinning short story turned into the opening chapter of Numbers. England.
in London. The first ones he saw were Jem’s. The city is an alien. Adam can’t help but clock how many people’s numbers are in January 2027. Now Adam is fifteen. Adam learned about the numbers. anarchic place. how many are on New Year’s Day. Val. What CHA0S awaits the world? Can Adam and his damaged friend Sarah stop a catastrophe? Or are they. Most disturbing of all. That was how he knew she was going to die. Orphaned. counted among the “twentysevens”? .Special Sneak Preview of Coming Soon! When he was just a little boy. too. he’s living with his great–grandmother.
I’ve been trying to use it in lessons. and one teacher at school when I was little. Mum always said they were our secret. She’s locked in on me and it’ll take more than somefreebie IT to knock her off target. before I knew what they were. something special between me and her. and all of a sudden. it was mine? Not knowing my own number bothers me. “I think they’re important. the chances are pretty high I’m one of them. but she don’t seem interested. Nan?” I know there’s something. a beautiful boy. and soon. The radio’s on — some news report about the government coming clean over the Kyoto targets being missed by miles — and next-door’s dog is yapping away as usual.” We look at each other for a minute and neither of us speaks. and a shiver runs down my spine. “Wake up. There are so many of them. “I know you’re special. I swear I think he’s here again…it’s like he never…” She trails off. so I’m way slower than everyone else.” Even though she never seems to move. I was just thinking about something…from math. Sometimes. Now I’m not so sure. they make me think things I don’t want to. “Your aura. But nothing works. I shrug. leaning up against the bench. Nan. I thought that left just me knowing. and sticks to it. Oh God. His number. If he wants me to give him another pasting I will. somewhere that’s hers. and I think I’m going to pass out. It has to be eye to eye and the only person in the world I can’t look at…is me. “Thirteen. Weston — she finds somewhere to perch. Done all the obvious things — looking in mirrors. What if my number’s the same as his? What if it wasn’t his death I was feeling. though. I’m not scared of him. I’ve got to distract her. “Like numbers?” Do I like numbers? Like them? She’s watching me now. I’m not sure what she’s asking me. Maybe I’m the one holding the knife. but I’m not ready to tell her everything about school. anyway. Like maybe I’m there when it happens. drinking tea and chain-smoking her way through the day.” I take a risk. you’re special. snickering — a hick from the sticks. And the feelings are so strong. “S’pose. She don’t need to know I’ve made an enemy and met a girl. I asked you a question.” I say carefully. I’ve never told anyone about the numbers except Mum.” “What?” “I saw. I swear it. standing in the kitchen. “Yeah. Red and gold. There’s courage. They’re there in you. too. I have to know. the day you were born. I was on my own. “I don’t think I like numbers. so I ferret in my bag and whip out the palm-net they gave me when I finally registered. I didn’t tell. I’ve never seen nothing like it. but the silence between us is electric. Nan glances at it. and blows a plume of smoke up toward the ceiling. more than anything. “What else. . I wrote it down at break time. There’s an extra shine to her eyes. You’re a leader. There are hundreds at school. your mum and your dad. you have spiritual strength. not his threats. “You like math. but I’ve never had my own computer before. they are important. When she died. You’ve been put here for a reason. Junior don’t bother me.” She narrows her eyes. There are thirteen in my tutor group. I could see people watching me. Not yet. A survivor. and the rims are pink. reflections in windows. that’s something else. And I kept it like that.… Even now. and looks deep into my eyes. do you?” she says. Adam.” Shit! Have I really said it out loud? “Thirteen what. the sweat’s breaking out on my skin. love?” Nan asks. Mum wouldn’t let them in the house. “I seen it in you. I’ve had knuckleheads like him saying things like that to me my whole life.” “Yeah. even in water. It’s a nasty death. I see. but I still can’t get it out of my head.” Nan’s voice breaks through my thoughts and my mouth goes into action before my brain has time to stop it.” she says finally. She swallows hard.” Nan says.ADAM “Get on alright?” Nan’s on her stool in the kitchen when I get home. where I expect her to be. Wherever she is — here. S’pose that’s what really worries me about the twenty-sevens. there’s so much of my Terry in you. My God. You’re strong. “Nothing. Adam. I’ve tried to see it. she don’t miss a bloody thing. right through you.
she rang me up.” “You know?” “Yeah. and she turns to put the kettle on. I sit down opposite her.” I say. I’ve got a right” She’s studying the tabletop. and says.” She nods. “Not here!” she shouts. Nan knew! Mum knew! I’m shaking. “I know. just a little. Jem told me about 2027. “Nan — half the people in London are going to die next year. I knew about her years ago. I kick out again. and I feel the shame spreading through me like a blush. I’ve seen their numbers. in my arms and legs. then we can talk about it. and I s’pose now’s the time.” I say. “If you’ve calmed down. but she’s strong. “Tell me. son. Nan. “Tell me everything you know. Warned me.” Suddenly. She makes a grab for my arms. I try to shrug her off. “How do you know about them?” “Your mum told me. blows a long trail of smoke out of the corner of her mouth. Nan. I’m not like you and your mum. she lets go of one of my arms and slaps me across the face. I kick at the board under the kitchen cupboards. “I don’t see numbers. what to do with myself. “Adam! Stop it!” Nan’s on her feet now.” She sits down and reaches for her packet.” I say. I see things like they’re happening to someone else.“What about my number?” She frowns. I’m not making it up. Then. or pretending to. I’m angry. I don’t know where to look. you do have a right. I rub my cheek where she got me.” “OK. “Yeah. We stand wrestling with each other for a few seconds. quick as a flash. . When the tea’s ready.” So she does know. and then she looks up at me. and this time the board thunks down onto the floor. much stronger than you’d think to look at her. How dare they keep this from me? Why leave me on my own with it? “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t she?” The anger’s fizzing through me now. She brushes a little bit of ash onto the floor. I need a smoke. and her hand is shaking. as she draws a cigarette out and lights it. I’ve got to tell her.” And she tells me. “Not in my house! I won’t have it!” I come back to myself then. coming toward me. “Don’t do that!” I want to smash something. if you’ll listen. “I’m sorry. but I’m not scared. and then when she found out about you.” My hands go up to the sides of my head. “In fact. About me and Mum and Dad.” she says. tell her the thing I’ve been bottling up all summer. a teenage boy grappling with an old woman in her kitchen. “Should think so. you make the tea.
In the darkness. Then footsteps. scarred. Of course stuff happens. but not sleepy. The back of my T-shirt and my sheets are drenched. . I’ve never dreamt that before. dance. Rain starts battering against the window. I can t wake the others: Marty and Luke in the room next door. then with more force. I’m trapped. We’ll die here. How? How has he done that? It’s bullshit. It worked! It fucking worked! I hug my knees in closer and rock from side to side. I know it is. and I cross both sets of fingers. The boy with the scarred face is here. The baby’s screaming. I think dully. dazzling my eyes from the inside. The boy at school is the boy in my nightmare. me and her. but the war’s not over yet. penned in by rubble. It’s new. It’s safe to sleep. And he grabs the baby. He’s found his way out of my head and into my life. but when I do drift off. He needs to check. The boy. I’m tired. I ache for sleep. I reach out next to me and switch on the light. He’s fire and flame himself. burned. I can hear the handle turn. crackling. and I lie there for ages. There’s a scuffling sound as He moves the door backward and forward. I’ve won a battle. I can picture His face — confusion turning to anger — and I hunch up farther on the bed. It’s not real. Stuff like that doesn’t happen. gently at first. eight hours of dreamless blankness. He can t believe it.SARAH He’s trying the door. It’s him. The flames are orange. knees up to my chin. The first of January 2027. my mum farther down the landing. and he walks away and is consumed. The room falls quiet for a few seconds. and silence. and then He’s there again. The flames are yellow. spitting heat. sitting upright. I should sleep now. He’s brought it to me. a dark shape in the thundering. I uncurl my legs and slide them down under the duvet. but I can’t break the silence. scream. The room’s still dark when I force myself awake. I want to shout out. Stuff happens all the time. I’m back in the nightmare that waits for me every night. I hold my breath. triumphant and scared at the same time. neon-bright. I’m being burned alive. too. There’s a date in my head. the scraping of metal on wood as the door pushes against the chair I left tipped up against it. there’s no rest. my baby. I squint until my eyes adjust and then I see the chair wedged up against the door handle. The flames are white.
My private space. I wrote her number down on a picture of her when I was five. was looking for them. “How long have you had this?” I say. I can see that — she wants to know what’s in it. staring out from the front page. And the only person I ever did tell was her. I want her to be here. and you could tell it hurt her to put me in here.” she says. Is there any of her left on it? I smooth my fingers across it. . I never knew they were famous. What right did she have…? It’s not hers. “She gave it to me a few weeks before she…went. And Nan’s been holding on to it. I could never tell anyone their number. knowing? I’ve got part of the answer now. You don’t know nothing about me. “’Course you do. I’m inside a shrine. Something for me. I don’t want it to end.” she says slowly.” “Why didn’t you give it to me? It’s mine. son. would you? You’d know what was best?” She looks me straight in the eye. not hers. we could’ve talked about it…. She can feel the tension as much as I can and she’s not backing down.” I snort. Then she sniffs loudly and reaches for another cigarette. there’s an envelope folded in half. She trusted me. and there’s no weight on her at all anymore. with me. like she’s explaining something to an idiot. And all because Mum could see the numbers. And I open the envelope. Now. All she ever said to me about the numbers was that they were secret. I know she’s gone. The instant I start reading. I’ve almost forgotten that’s what we’re arguing about. The anger sparks up again. “I’m gonna read it on my own. “’Course. She’s disappointed. I’ve only got a handful of my things with me. I don’t need you making decisions for me. I want to read whatever’s inside. It’s got my name on it. wrong time.” My name’s written on the front in Mum’s writing — I’d know it anywhere. I could’ve asked Mum. I reckon that’s now. but I also know that once I’ve read it. Next to my notebook. When she’s finished telling me Mum and Dad’s story. It’ll be like saying good-bye all over again. that’ll be it. Nan never moved a thing when he died. but I’ve got a little bit of her back now.” I take it up to my room and sit on the bed. I can hear her voice. “Yeah. I put the envelope on my lap and stare at it. Nan’s kept some of the clippings from the papers — gives me chills looking at them. But it’s still her. He died before Mum knew she was pregnant. everyone in the country knew about them. surrounded by his stuff.” I say. For when you was ready. a room of my own. I can’t believe it’s real. There’ll be nothing else from her. but there was nowhere else I could go. except that it’s not mine. Mine. “I’m fifteen. My voice sounds strange. What the hell did that do to her? What must her last few years have been like. My mum and dad. I know it has already. writing. it’s mine. I swear my heart stops for a second when I see it. see her sitting propped up in bed. Dad never even knew about me.” “And you’d know. Her hand held this envelope. Everything else here is my dad’s: a boy about the same age as me.” “I know more than you think. Something from Mum. Nan gives it me. Dear Adam. at least your mum thought so. If only I’d known about all this. Well. I’ll be right here. and she is. as young as I am now. so young.ADAM They were famous! My mum and dad. It’s still Mum. She’s so thin you can’t hardly recognize her face. “Mum.” I say. “She wanted you to have this.” “I told you. like it belongs to someone else. They were only kids when they had me. Mum’s writing. nosy old cow. When the time was right. Her hair’s gone. “Most Wanted. and I hold it up to my chest. before I knew what it meant.” For something they didn’t do — just wrong place. a boy I never knew and who never knew about me. For a couple of weeks in 2010. so much. why don’t you calm down for a minute and open that envelope?” The envelope. “she asked me to keep it for you. Come and talk to me when you’ve done. like me.
don’t worry. I can’t be there to keep you safe. like her. “Adam!” she screams. and all the time the tears keep pouring down my face. I want to tell you so much. always will. She’s been found out for the lying. but…” She reaches her hand out toward the ashtray. and it was nothing but trouble. I reach forward. “When I said I didn’t want to go! When Mum had said not to come!” “Adam…” “She trusted you!” “I know. but if you start to forget what I looked like. pulsing right through me. She’s got to be kidding. London isn’t safe.” “She said something. backward and forward. trust me. Don’t let Nan take you there. Her fingers are trembling as she stubs out her cigarette. Then I put the letter on the end of the bed. too. or anything. don’t cheek her or nothing. Now I can’t stop. Love always. I knew we shouldn’t have come. I seen the numbers when I was growing up. I wish I was there to see you grow up. out of control. and I let go. justify herself. and you still brought us here?” “I did. but I can’t be. too. Not ever. Don’t go to London. out of harm’s way. 01012027. but that just makes it worse. Adam. Adam. but it all comes down to the same thing. your nan. It’s trouble. selfish cow she is. And then I curl up in a ball and I rock backward and forward. “No!” I wipe the paper with my thumb. Cup of tea in front of her and a cigarette in her mouth. I look around me like I’m seeing the room for the first time. they’re defiant. to say good-bye. I find an old tissue in my pocket and dab it dry. but when she opens them. great heaving sobs. gripping so hard my knuckles are white. I seen it in tons of people when I was growing up. not since before she died. Don’t go to London. The dish is overflowing — stale. My whole body’s crying. I slam out of the room and down the stairs. “That’s enough!” . Nan’s still in the kitchen. turning her kisses all blurry. I knew this was a bad place. and stay there. Just remember the love. Always have. Don’t forget. Don’t let Nan take you there. She shuts her eyes for a second. Keep her safe. and keep her out. Nan puts her hand up across her forehead and rubs it. I haven’t cried for a long time. and hurl it against the wall. so I’ve asked Nan to look after you. Glass and ash spray out. I can’t hardly bear to stop writing. Adam. disgusting. Adam. Find somewhere where the people have good numbers. and I feel the anger back again. I told people. It smashes when it hits the floor. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. “She said something. Stay in Weston. gripping it with both hands. yes. No more tears. Don’t go to London. The ink spreads out like a firework. And there’s nothing left. noises I never knew I had in me. I love you.I’m writing this knowing you won’t read it until after I’ve gone. I hope you remember me. Nothing she can say will make this better. Not anyone. so you be good for her. or sounded like. I broke my own rule. I know. That’s what matters. I’m going to go now. tingling in the tips of my fingers. The best. “She never wanted us to come to London! She wanted us to stay in Weston! Did you know that? Did you? Did you?” I’m leaning on the other side of the table. You mustn’t tell. so I’m telling you this now. There aren’t enough words in the world to tell you how much I love you. It’s like a dam bursting — something bigger than me sweeping me away. We’re the same you and me — we see things that no one should ever know. pick the vile thing up. She’s a diamond. or somewhere like that. tears and snot. Mum xxxxxx A tear drips off the end of my chin and splashes onto the paper. but…” She thinks she can argue with me. for I don’t know how long ‘til I slowly come to a stop. I need you to do something.
I might not stop. It’s hers. It’s better this way. I tighten my grip on the table and heave it over. But standing still’s no good. Not nearly enough. And I want to so much. “I hate you! I hate you!” I’m out of the kitchen and through the living room and out the front door before I can change my mind. “Jesus Christ! Stop it. icy drops stinging my face. and I stop for a minute to suck it in. broken china and brown tea mixing with ash and glass. but if I start…if I start. I’m running away from what I might have done to her. I’m not running away from her. It’s not their fault. sending it crashing down on its side by the sink. Adam!” “Shut up.But it’s not enough. The table’s not enough. so I walk and then I run. And now I’ve got to get out of here. . Better for both of us if I keep on running and never go back. Shut the fuck up!” “Don’t you dare…” The ashtray’s not enough. And as I run it starts raining. It’s wrong. anyway. ‘Cause I know what I want to do next and that’s crossing a line. I’m too wound up. The cold air hits me. There’s too much energy charging through me.
I’ve been pinching tenners out of my mum’s purse for weeks now. He always gives me a lift to school. If I’ve got enough money with me. She’d have to do something then. They’ll look at my account when I go. How can she not know? . It’s going to have to be Dad’s money. No point taking things I can’t wear. I can buy anything else I need. I take all the books out of my schoolbag — I’ll manage without them — then I carefully fold up some underwear. my favorite T-shirts. not enough. it smells of Him. I know Dad keeps cash in His study. Ask the police or someone to see what I’ve been spending. So it’s only what I can get in my normal bag. Mum’s watching TV in the sitting room. One at a time. As much cash as I can find.SARAH I wont be able to take much. There’s another way. the ones I’ve worn and washed ‘til they’ve gone soft and floppy. me and the boys? Or would she tell me to shut up? Send me to my room for telling such wicked lies? Or shrug her shoulders. I know Marty and Luke have got some money. isn’t there? I don’t have to leave. I really want to take a pair — they’re all I wear normally. and money. where I’ve been. so she won’t notice. I’m going to go tomorrow. Can I steal from my brothers? I could — if they weren’t in their rooms right now. Even when I know He’s not in the house. I could go in there now. I haven’t had the nerve to go in there — it’s His room. won’t be back for ages. and He’ll notice any extra bags. the way He is? At the back of my mind. sit down next to her. He’s out for the evening. I look at my jeans in the drawer. some track pants. and tell her. I need more. but even my favorites. won’t zip up now. I know that she already knows. Now. and hesitate. it’s different. wouldn’t she? Ring the police? Throw Him out? Or gather all our things up and take us somewhere. I count up the cash I’ve got stashed away: eighty-five euros. I pass by the doorway. entertaining some clients at dinner. say that’s just the way things are. So cash is the thing. I can’t bring myself to do it.
starred review “A lovely. How would you like to know someone’s fate just by looking in their eyes? Creepy and original!” — R.” — School Library Journal.” — Kirkus . The ending is a real shocker. bold.” — The Los Angeles Times * “A gritty tale. and utterly unique.IT ALL ADDS UP! PRAISE FOR NUM8ERS “Even the idea of this book gave me chills. starred review * “Gritty. bittersweet tearjerker about living life to the fullest. unsparingly told.L. One thing is certain: Ward’s Numbers is ace. Stine “A page-turner: Engrossing and au-courant. Stark and honest.” — Publishers Weekly.
com First paperback printing. decompiled. reverse engineered. now known or hereinafter invented. February 2011 All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. or otherwise. 557 Broadway.scholastic. NY 10012.. and associated logos are trademarks and/or registered trademarks of Scholastic Inc. whether electronic or mechanical. mechanical. without written permission of the publisher. Attention: Permissions Department. E-ISBN 978-0-545-35672-5 . New York. stored in a retrieval system. photocopying. downloaded. transmitted. write to Scholastic Inc. SCHOLASTIC. By payment of the required fees. CHICKEN HOUSE. Originally published in hardcover in 2010 by Chicken House. an imprint of Scholastic Inc. No part of this text may be reproduced. Published by Scholastic Inc. For information regarding permission.Copyright No part of this publication may be reproduced. electronic. www. or transmitted in any form or by any means. or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system. non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. Text copyright © 2010 by Rachel Ward Excerpt from Numbers: The Chaos © 2011 by Rachel Ward Cover art and design by Christopher Stengel All rights reserved. recording. in any form or by any means. you have been granted the nonexclusive. without the express written permission of publisher.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?