Ketchup clouds, p.10
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       Ketchup Clouds, p.10

           Annabel Pitcher
 
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  Lauren stared right back, completely oblivious to Max’s presence. ‘In History you told me you were so hungry you’d eat your own nan if she was battered and came with a side order of chips and mushy peas.’ Max smiled as I looked mortified, but I swapped my salad for a plate of proper food on my tray.

  For the rest of lunch I sat with Lauren in our form room as the radiators blasted hot dry heat. Doodling in our diaries, I filled her in about Max but not Aaron, making her laugh about the toilet roll and exaggerating the awkwardness with his mum in the hall. Max felt less personal somehow. More of a story. Aaron was too private to say out loud. The party and the bonfire and the car journey, all of it had happened under the cover of darkness so it was hard to expose, especially in a classroom with boys chucking a frisbee underneath the fluorescent strip lights. Lauren drew a house and I drew a smiley face and she drew a heart and I drew a wonky dog and cat, wrapping their tails together in a big bow.

  ‘Cute,’ Lauren yawned, tipping back her head with her mouth wide open, the frisbee flying out of nowhere to smack her on the nose.

  Lauren stumbled into the nurse’s office as I waited outside, picking up a leaflet about teenage pregnancy. How To Tell Your Parents. That’s what I was reading when I heard a shuffling noise behind me. I spun round to see Max glance at the leaflet, his eyes widening in alarm even though we hadn’t come close to doing it.

  ‘I got a visit from this person called Gabriel. Bright. Big wings.’

  Max looked puzzled then amused. ‘I don’t always get your jokes, but I like that you tell them.’

  He collapsed on the floor with his leg outstretched, mud smeared all over his school shirt, his aftershave mixing with the smell of grass and rain. Three girls in the year below scuttled past as Max pulled down his sock, giggling and whispering and holding onto each other in this helpless sort of adoration. His foot was puffy so I touched it gently, glancing at the girls. Sure enough, their eyes turned into daggers and I liked the way the blades twinkled in my direction.

  ‘That feels good,’ Max murmured, so I did it again.

  ‘You don’t have my phone do you?’ I asked. ‘Did I leave it at yours?’

  Max shut his eyes and gritted his teeth. ‘Yeah. It’s in my locker. Meet me there after school?’ Nothing in his voice told me that his brother had found the phone and when I looked closely at his face, there was no bruising either.

  Of course I had absolutely no intention of kissing Max when the final bell rang, but I didn’t get much choice in the matter, like Stuart imagine a strong mouth attaching itself to yours and firm hands pushing your back against a wall, and now I come to think of it you may have experienced this already because unfortunately I’ve heard the rumours about what goes on in male prisons. Even as I tried to protest, Max’s lips clamped against mine and my words got lost in all our saliva, but I didn’t try very hard to find them again.

  That night Mum and Dad had another argument that went on all week, in the kitchen and the lounge and the bathroom as Mum brushed her teeth so hard I thought she might knock them out. Dad wanted Mum to get a job and Mum was point blank refusing.

  ‘But the girls don’t need you as much now they’re older!’ Dad said for the twentieth time on Saturday morning, waking me up.

  ‘Look what happened to Dot!’ Mum replied, spitting out noisily in the sink. ‘I have to be at home!’

  ‘Who for, exactly?’

  ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

  ‘The girls are at school, Jane. They don’t need you during the day so who are you staying here for, eh?’

  The tap came on.

  ‘I’m a mum, aren’t I? It’s my job to stay at home!’

  ‘You can be a mum and work in an office. Part-time, especially. You don’t have to be here every second of the day. You used to juggle both things.’

  ‘And look what happened then!’ Mum shouted, and I had no idea what she meant so I sat up in bed, listening closely. ‘Look what happened when I went back to work, Simon!’ Glass smashed against tiles as she yanked open the shower door. ‘I’m not risking it. Now can you please give me some space so I can get ready?’

  Soph appeared at the end of my bed in pyjamas, her hair sticking up in all directions.

  ‘They don’t love each other any more.’

  I pulled the duvet over my head as the shower came on full blast, determined to enjoy the last bit of bed before my shift at the library. ‘’Course they do,’ I said though I didn’t sound sure. ‘It’s just buried.’

  ‘Buried under what?’

  ‘Money worries and job worries and Grandpa worries . . .’ I tailed off, wondering if it happened to every couple. How it happened. When. For some reason I thought of Gran and Grandpa in the black and white pictures and then I saw Mum as a star in the sky, her silvery light fading as Dad turned away.

  ‘I don’t ever want to grow up,’ Soph interrupted, which is exactly what I was thinking. She flopped onto my bed. ‘Not ever.’

  ‘You want to stay nine years old for the rest of your life?’ I asked from underneath the covers.

  ‘No. Definitely not. Nine’s the worst.’

  ‘So, you don’t want to be a child but you don’t want to be an adult?’ I clarified.

  ‘Right. I want to be a – what’s left?’

  I pulled the duvet down. ‘Death.’ I started to laugh but Soph didn’t join in.

  ‘I’d make a good corpse,’ she said after a pause, crossing her arms over her chest. ‘It would be nice to lie in a coffin for a bit.’

  ‘You’d get bored.’

  ‘Wouldn’t.’

  ‘Would. And anyway, I’d miss you.’

  She held out her arms in the manner of a zombie. ‘I’d come back from the dead to visit you,’ she chanted in a spooky monotone. ‘Just you, though,’ she said in her normal voice. ‘Not Mum or Dad. And definitely not Dot.’

  At the beginning of my shift in the library, I tidied up the shelves in the History section, putting the books in chronological order. Similar to the bonfire, there was no build up. One minute Aaron wasn’t there and the next he was, sitting at a desk, just metres from where I was standing behind the shelf. Gripping the wood to steady myself, I blinked quickly probably ten times in total to make absolutely sure my eyes weren’t imagining things. Through a gap in the Nazi section, my nose hovering above a swastika, I watched Aaron open his bag, get out a notepad, flick through the pages and begin to write.

  Fixing a pleasant sort of expression on my face, I started to walk towards his desk, changed my mind at the last moment and zoomed back to the shelf, my stomach bursting with butterflies. Call me a coward but I was scared to bound over all presumptuous when last time I’d snatched his number and sprinted off down a dark road. Besides, I hadn’t called, and I didn’t know how to explain that without mentioning his brother and the fact we’d kissed in a deserted locker room for five minutes and I’d enjoyed every wet second of it.

  Aaron bit the end of his pen then scribbled something in the margin. He looked up so I ducked, my fingers gripping the shelves and my heart clattering against my ribs. Slowly, slowly, I straightened up once more to spy through the gap, every sinew in my neck straining and tense as my breath quivered in my nostrils. Aaron was writing again, his shoulders broad in a white t-shirt that was the brightest thing in the library and most probably the world, and I was drawn to it by a gravitational pull because this shining boy was the centre of my universe or at least more interesting than stacking books on a dusty shelf.

  Squeezing my lips together, I made my way towards Aaron, but he was so engrossed in his work and my nerves were so out of control that I just sped straight past without stopping. Stepping clumsily over his bag, my thigh almost brushed his arm and I could hear Aaron’s eyes pop out of his head with a cartoon booooiiiiiing. I practically ran to the front desk and lifted up the Returns box for something to do, my hands trembling against the cardboard.

  I tipped it too roughly. Books clattered onto the desk
and my boss, Mrs Simpson, tutted behind the computer. Wuthering Heights. Bleak House. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest. A book about the Berlin Wall and one about toads.

  ‘Bird Girl,’ someone whispered, and I turned to see Aaron, a few centimetres from my face. He grinned as I blushed.

  ‘Those books won’t return themselves to the shelf,’ Mrs Simpson said, looking down her long nose. Picking up two random books from the pile, I tugged Aaron’s sleeve to tell him to follow.

  Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

  D.

  Literature on the first floor.

  I don’t know if it was the spiral staircase or the sound of Aaron’s feet right behind me that made me dizzy. At the top, I disappeared between two narrow bookshelves. We were completely alone. My blush wrapped itself round my whole body and burned.

  ‘You didn’t call,’ he said.

  ‘No,’ I whispered. ‘My sister broke her wrist so I’ve been a bit distracted.’

  ‘I forgive you,’ Aaron replied, glancing at A Christmas Carol on the shelf. ‘I’m going to see that in a few weeks. A musical version of Scrooge with my mum. She loves it. Dragging us all to the theatre. Max isn’t happy about it.’

  ‘I love Christmas,’ I said quickly, keen to move the conversation away from his brother. ‘Turkey and presents and all the build up and stuff.’

  ‘What was your best one?’ Aaron asked, putting his elbow on the shelf.

  ‘Easy. One in France. I was about seven and I made this snowman out of—’

  ‘Snow?’ Aaron finished.

  I pushed Bleak House into a gap. ‘Well, obviously. But also a croissant.’

  ‘Did you just say croissant?’

  ‘Well, I didn’t have a banana or anything else for its mouth so I had to make do with what I could find. I’m very resourceful,’ I told him.

  ‘What did you call the snowman?’ Aaron asked. ‘Pierre?’

  ‘Fred, actually.’

  ‘Very French.’

  ‘He looked like a Fred!’

  ‘How do Freds look?’

  ‘Jolly,’ I said after a pause. ‘And old. We stuck a flat cap on the snowman’s head and put a pipe in the croissant. A pretend one, anyway. Made out of a stick . . . What?’ I asked, because Aaron was staring at me with twinkling eyes.

  ‘Nothing,’ he said, in a way that told me it was something, and something good.

  He moved his finger up and down the spines and my own back tingled. I inched forward and Aaron did too and Stuart there was only one book between us now but it just so happened to be the one on the Berlin Wall which I’m sure you know was impossible to climb over. Aaron smiled and I smiled and then our faces grew serious across the great expanse of that thirty-centimetre space. Blood pounding in my ears, I leaned closer and—

  ‘Excuse me.’

  We spun round in unison to see an old lady in an anorak.

  ‘I’m looking for a book for my granddaughter who’s coming to stay. Could you recommend something?’ Grimacing in frustration, I charged down the spiral steps to the children’s section and handed her the first thing I could find, a picture book called Molly the Moo Cow. The old lady blinked. ‘My granddaughter’s sixteen. And a vegetarian.’

  By the time I’d found a suitable book, Mrs Simpson had appeared by the beanbags, dressed in a pale yellow cardigan with flowers for buttons.

  ‘There’s a lot of filing in the office, Zoe,’ she said, her neat bob like a helmet of hair round her pointy face.

  ‘But I need to return this,’ I said, waving the book on the Berlin Wall. ‘And Literature’s looking a bit messy.’ Mrs Simpson followed my gaze. Aaron was still in the D section, waiting for me to return.

  ‘I can do that,’ she sniffed. ‘You’re needed in the back.’

  She stared at me until I moved. Faster even than the speed of light I sorted the papers into piles, standing over a table, scared Aaron was going to leave without saying goodbye. The seventh time I looked through the glass in the door, that’s precisely what had happened. His desk was empty. His bag had gone.

  I sank onto a chair but just as my bum hit the seat there was a knock on the window and Stuart I would love to pretend Aaron’s hair was sticking up and there was a leaf dangling from his fringe to make it sound as if he’d climbed through hedges and all that to get to me. But that would be a lie because he was just standing on an ordinary pavement as cars roared behind him, and there was nothing special about it whatsoever except my heart didn’t seem to realise. It soared out of my chest and into the sky, a flash of scarlet in all the blue.

  Aaron waved and I waved. He put his hand on the glass and I put mine on the glass and he did this I’m-taking-the-mick face, making his eyes big and fluttering like we were having a special moment. And the funny thing was, we actually were, and we both knew it, which is why our cheeks burned the exact same colour of brightest red.

  From,

  Zoe x

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  December 25th

  Hey Stuart,

  It’s the first hour of Christmas Day and so cold I can see my breath and I’m very glad of the hat and the scarf and Dad’s jacket. I won’t stay long because my fingers are already numb and no doubt Dot will be up at the crack of dawn to see if Santa’s been, but I wanted you to know I’m thinking of you, hoping you’re sleeping soundly in your cell like baby Jesus except with a scar and a shaved head and no visitors bringing you gold, frankincense or myrrh. Don’t worry, you’re not missing out on much because I found out in R.E. that myrrh is a sort of sticky tree resin, and if you ask me Wise Man Number Three was a bit mean to give oak-goo to the Saviour of the World. He would have been better off riding across the desert on his camel with something more traditional e.g. chocolates in the shape of reindeer, which by the way you’ll find in the bottom of your envelope.

  Dot was hyper last night, cantering up and down the lounge, her hands by her head in the manner of antlers. Her excitement made me ache. Maybe you ache too, Stuart. Maybe you ache for the days you and your brother put a mince pie and a glass of sherry on the mantelpiece for Santa because now you’re in a cell and he’s somewhere else far away, probably with a picture of your wife on his wall next to a bare Christmas tree that he hasn’t got the energy to decorate.

  Anyway, I’m wasting time so I should make a start before Dot gets out of bed. Seeing as it’s Christmas, I thought I’d tell you about last December so imagine the ground’s frosty, the atmosphere in the study too, because Dad had finally left his job and was filling in an application with Mum hovering over his shoulder.

  PART EIGHT

  ‘No apostrophe in its.’

  Dad tapped his fingers on the desk. ‘Yes there is.’

  ‘Only when you mean it is. You don’t need an apostrophe to show possession.’

  Dad pressed the delete button. ‘Why don’t you apply for the job rather than correcting my application? It’s your area of law.’

  Mum leaned forward to type. ‘We’ve talked about this. I’m not going through it all again.’ She picked up three used mugs and marched out of the room.

  The house was cleaner than ever before, the taps gleaming in the bathroom and the furniture smelling of polish. Bedtimes were stricter and homework was checked more thoroughly and Mum made me redo a History essay to include all the facts I’d cut out about the Cold War, which was quite a lot because from what I can gather nothing much happened between Russia and America, like imagine a boxing match where two fighters just sit at opposite sides of the ring and flex their muscles without engaging in combat.

  She made Dot practise her lip reading too, practically every day after school until Dad told her to give it a rest.

  ‘How can I give it a rest when you won’t give me any alternative?’

  ‘Dot’s exhausted,’ Dad said, and sure enough my sister had flopped over the side of the leather armchair, her arms dangling over her head. ‘Come on, Jane. That’s enough for today.’

&
nbsp; ‘She’s messing about,’ Mum said, yanking Dot back up to sitting.

  ‘You’ve been at it for over an hour!’

  ‘One hour and twenty-two minutes,’ Soph muttered from the piano, crashing the keys in a minor chord and sounding so miserable that I grabbed her hand and pulled her upstairs into Mum and Dad’s wardrobe.

  Mum’s dresses swung from hangers as we scrambled among the shoes to get comfortable. I opened my pencil case and gave Soph my favourite fountain pen for a treat.

  ‘What’s up?’ I asked in the darkness. It was a Friday night without much moon so the wardrobe was that thick sort of black. I grabbed a crayon and inhaled deeply as Soph chewed on her lip. ‘Right, here’s the deal. You tell me your secret and I’ll tell you mine.’

  She contemplated this for a second then blurted out, ‘They keep calling me names.’

  ‘Who do?’

  ‘All the girls in my class. All of them. And tonight there’s a sleepover with a Ouija board and Portia’s going to ask the ghost to reveal my secrets.’

  ‘Have you told a teacher?’ She looked at me as if I was mental so I grabbed her hands, abandoning the crayon in Dad’s shoe. ‘You have to tell someone.’ Soph screwed up her face. ‘You have to,’ I said more firmly. ‘Mum or Dad if you don’t want to say anything at school.’

  ‘Okay,’ she whispered, nodding slightly. ‘If it gets worse. Maybe Mum.’

  It was my turn to talk so I told her about Max.

  ‘He keeps asking to meet by the lockers after school.’

  ‘Do you go?’

  ‘It’s Max Morgan, isn’t it? You don’t say no.’

  ‘What happens when you get there?’

  I rolled my eyes. ‘What do you think, Soph?’

  ‘So are you his girlfriend or what?’ she asked, sucking on the end of the fountain pen.

  ‘Or what. He hasn’t asked me out or anything.’

  ‘So you just kiss and talk and—’

  ‘We don’t even talk. Just kiss. Not every day. When he feels like it. I think he fancies me though.’

  ‘What about you? Do you fancy him?’

 
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