Ketchup clouds, p.15
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       Ketchup Clouds, p.15

           Annabel Pitcher
 
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  ‘Or die.’

  ‘Soph!’

  ‘I’m only joking!’ she said, sliding off the bed and onto the rug, holding her head and blinking ten times as the blood went back to normal. ‘But it would be nice to get some money in his will.’

  ‘What would you do with it? Say if you got thousands of pounds?’

  She lolled onto her back, spread-eagled on the floor. ‘Move somewhere sunny with a pool and a new house and a big hutch for hundreds of rabbits and a new school just round the corner.’

  ‘How is it?’ I asked, feeling guilty that I’d been so wrapped up with Aaron and Max that I hadn’t checked for a while. ‘Any better?’ Soph hesitated, fiddling with the mood ring on her finger. ‘Are they still doing it?’

  ‘Sort of.’

  ‘What do you mean, sort of?’

  ‘It was okay for a while but now the names are really bad.’

  I struggled to twist round on the bed. ‘Like what?’

  ‘Don’t want to say.’ She picked fluff off the carpet, not meeting my eyes. ‘But last week this girl called Portia hit me.’

  ‘She hit you? Where?’

  ‘Not hard,’ Soph said quickly. ‘Not enough to make a bruise or anything, but it still hurt.’

  ‘We have to tell Mum. We really do, Soph.’

  Slowly, she nodded. I stayed with her for ages, turning on her TV when she climbed into bed so she wouldn’t hear the inevitable argument when Dad got home, not that my plan worked because there was such an almighty row that Stu you probably heard it in Texas.

  ‘I forgot, all right? It was a mistake!’

  ‘You probably left your phone here on purpose so you wouldn’t have to—’

  ‘I want a job! Why do you think I’ve been filling in hundreds of applications?’

  ‘Don’t exaggerate!’ Mum bickered, as I listened on the stairs. ‘Hundreds? Please!’

  ‘Well, I’ve done a hundred percent more than you.’

  ‘I keep this place running!’ Mum argued. ‘If it wasn’t for me—’

  ‘If it wasn’t for you, we’d all breathe a little easier! You’re too controlling, Jane. And I tell you something, I’m putting my foot down. I’ve had enough.’

  I imagined Mum and Dad eyeballing each other from opposite sides of the room.

  ‘Is this about your father?’

  ‘Partly,’ Dad admitted and there was no apology in his voice. ‘You can’t stop my children from seeing my dad, Jane. It isn’t fair.’

  ‘It isn’t suitable for them to see him!’ Mum groaned. ‘This is precisely why I don’t trust your judgement, Simon. Expecting me to let our kids go into a care home to talk to a mental—’

  ‘Don’t speak about my dad like that,’ Dad warned and in my head I watched him hold out a shaking finger. ‘Don’t you dare.’

  ‘I do dare!’ Mum yelled. ‘I can have an opinion. It’s our money you’re spending, driving miles every day to see that man when you should be doing something more useful.’

  ‘Money I’ve earned!’

  ‘Money you’re no longer earning,’ Mum corrected him. ‘Money we can’t afford to spend because you can’t get a damn job!’

  ‘I won’t take employment advice from someone who refuses to work.’

  ‘My job’s here,’ Mum started. ‘With the girls. Someone has to look out for them and stop you from doing something dangerous like—’

  ‘Taking my children to visit their grandpa is not dangerous!’

  ‘It’s ridiculous!’

  ‘You’re ridiculous! It wouldn’t do them any harm at all. You’re not letting them grow up. Or be independent. Or exposed to the world.’

  ‘I’m the one who wants Dot to have the implant so she can hear the bloody world!’

  ‘She’s happy!’ Dad argued. ‘Really happy!’

  ‘She’s struggling, Simon. That’s what the speech therapist told me today. She’s not picking up the lip reading as quickly as she might and—’

  ‘She can sign and she’s doing well at school with the help of her assistants. There’s no need to send her to hospital again, to disrupt her like that.’

  ‘She’ll be able to hear, though,’ Mum said in a wobbly voice. ‘Music. The TV. Me.’

  ‘She’ll be able to hear a whole load of electronic buzzing and squeaking that’s nothing like the real world. And it might not even work. You saw what happened last time! No,’ Dad said firmly. ‘It’s not worth the risk. You’re being selfish!’

  ‘Selfish? I’m doing this for our daughter!’

  ‘You’re doing it for yourself,’ Dad spat, ‘and we both know it!’

  ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

  ‘You know what I’m talking about,’ Dad roared. ‘You want Dot to be able to hear, because it’s your fault that she’s—’

  ‘GET OUT!’ Mum bellowed suddenly and the words echoed through the whole house. ‘GO!’

  I didn’t for a second think that he’d go, but the lounge door slammed. The front one too. I clung onto the banister, breathing shakily. I stared at my toes, not sure what to do, and then hinges creaked as Soph’s eyes appeared in the gap of her door, huge and terrified. I told her to go back to sleep but Mum started crying in the lounge so we both ran downstairs.

  ‘Mum?’ My voice sounded quiet after the argument. ‘Mum, are you okay?’

  She was hunched on the leather sofa, her back quivering. ‘I’m . . . I’m fine.’

  Soph charged over and forced herself onto Mum’s lap, putting her arms round her neck.

  ‘What was all that about?’ I asked, sounding frustrated and not bothering to cover it up. Grandpa and Mum and her job and Dot – none of it made sense. ‘What was your fault? What did Dad mean?’

  ‘Nothing.’ Mum wiped her eyes, her voice quivering.

  ‘It’s not nothing!’ I exploded. I stood in front of Mum with my expression probably furious. ‘Dad just walked out!’

  ‘He’ll be back in five minutes when he’s calmed down,’ Mum replied, heaving Soph off her lap. ‘You’re a bit heavy, my love.’ She stood up and took a deep breath then wiped her nose on her sleeve. ‘He can be so bloody stubborn. Not wanting Dot to have something that could help her. Pressurising me to take you to see Grandpa when he knows full well what happened.’

  ‘What did happen?’

  ‘Well, I won’t be bullied,’ Mum said, tucking her hair behind her ears, not listening to a word I was saying. ‘Absolutely not.’

  ‘Soph’s being bullied,’ I said in this pointed sort of way. ‘Actually bullied. By girls in her class.’ Mum spun round to look at her and Soph fiddled with the sleeve of her pyjama top. ‘It’s been going on a while, and it’s getting worse. You need to do something because it’s getting really bad. Not just names and stuff. This girl called Portia hit her.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘It’s true,’ I said, seeing the shocked expression on Mum’s face and hoping that she was coming to her senses. ‘I just thought you should know there are things going on apart from you and Dad.’

  That’s when he walked back into the house with a newspaper tucked underneath his arm, his light eye grey and stormy. Neither of them apologised. Mum watched Dad sit on the armchair and Dad watched Mum straighten the clothes on the radiator and I have no idea what they were thinking but Stu I’m pretty certain it was nothing about gold silk or rock pools or starlight.

  Love,

  Zoe xx

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  March 3rd

  Hey there Stu,

  Less than two months to go. I wonder if you’ve marked your calendar with a cross on May 1st or maybe you’ve just written 6pm lethal injection and all I can say is I hope you’re not afraid of needles because Lauren fainted twice when she had a vaccination at school and almost swallowed her tongue. It must be so strange to know when you’re going to die. All that build up of tension. Sort of like Christmas, but without the turkey, unless you’ve ordered that for your final meal. Anyway, it
might not come to that so let’s not start fantasising about all the trimmings because who knows you might have another few years if the nun’s got anything to do with it. No one knows what’s going to happen a month from now or two months from now and that’s what I keep telling myself when I get nervous about the memorial.

  In case you’re wondering it’s taking place at school because Sandra got the go-ahead from the staff to hire the hall for a two-course dinner on May 1st, prepared by the dinner ladies.

  ‘It’s going to be nice,’ she said in the conservatory last weekend as Mum smiled and I thought about honouring someone with spotted dick. ‘And it’ll raise money for the school as well. Fifteen pounds per ticket. You’ll get yours free, of course,’ she added, patting my leg. I moved it out of the way, pretending to have an itch on my knee. ‘Have you thought any more about what you might like to read?’ I didn’t reply. I couldn’t. The sun burst through the clouds, fastening me to the sofa like a hot gold drawing pin.

  ‘You’ve been quite busy at school, haven’t you?’ Mum said as sweat crept out of my pores.

  ‘Well, I think it would be nice to have something personal. Something she’s written herself,’ Sandra went on as if I wasn’t there. ‘Something from her heart.’

  ‘You’ll be good at that, Zo,’ Mum replied, taking my hand. ‘You’re a lovely writer.’

  It was a nice thing to say but Stu when I tried to do it earlier all I managed was his name underlined five times. Screwing up the paper, I threw it in the bin with a roar of frustration and stamped on it hard which hurt my foot but I deserved it so I did it again and again, hating myself for the pain that I’ve caused and the things that I’ve done. It would be bliss to forget the rain and the trees and the disappearing hand, to be like Grandpa after the stroke, confused and dazed, tossing memories to the side and asking for a bowl of strawberry jelly.

  If I can’t forget it then I need to get it out, now more than ever because Stu we don’t have long. No matter how hard it is I have to keep going because you’re the only one who understands and if everything goes wrong on May 1st then my chance will be gone. You’ll die not knowing the worst of me when I know the worst of you and that’s not fair because we’re in this together so don’t worry I’ll keep talking till the very end to keep you distracted and stop you feeling alone in your cell that I’m guessing seems smaller than ever, the outside world even further away.

  PART TWELVE

  We’ll start with Dot’s sixth birthday on February 16th so imagine her waking me up by leaping onto my bed, actually my head if I remember rightly, banging it with her knee.

  ‘It’s my special day!’ She signed the words in front my face so I could see her hands. Her little finger skimmed my nose.

  ‘I know it is.’

  ‘So where’s my present?’

  I pretended to gasp. ‘I forgot!’

  Dot screwed up her eyes. ‘You’re lying.’

  ‘No. Really. I forgot.’ Dot grabbed my ears and examined my expression closely, her nose touching mine.

  ‘Liar!’ She danced around, signing wildly. ‘Liar liar liar!’

  Laughing, I climbed out of bed and opened my cupboard, reaching for the present hidden underneath my shoes. Dot tore off the wrapping paper to find a gold plastic crown with the words Queen of the world on the front. She gazed at it in wonder.

  ‘Do you like it?’

  ‘I love it!’

  We sat on my bedroom carpet and sipped imaginary tea in Buckingham Palace.

  ‘Can I tell you a secret?’ she signed. I ate a pretend biscuit and waited. ‘You’re the best one in the family. The real best.’

  I touched her nose with my imaginary tea cup. ‘Thanks.’

  ‘This is the best present I ever got. Better than what Mum bought me.’ Dot wrinkled her nose. ‘Books. And colouring. She didn’t get me what I asked for.’

  I twisted my head to look at her. ‘What was that?’

  Dot stared back at me, her face sad. ‘New ears.’

  ‘Is that why you asked for an iPod from Santa?’ I asked, pulling her onto my lap. ‘Did you ask him too? For new ears?’

  She nodded. ‘But only in the P.S. at the bottom of my letter so maybe he didn’t see it.’

  ‘Maybe,’ I managed, aching for her, rocking her from side to side, knowing that it wouldn’t help but wanting to do something.

  She gazed up at me, her eyes really green. ‘Why was I born like this?’

  ‘I don’t know. You can’t choose these things.’

  ‘Well, I don’t think it’s fair.’

  ‘No,’ I replied. ‘Me neither.’

  I couldn’t stop thinking about her all morning. In the shower. Having breakfast. On the way to the library. Honest truth I barely listened to Mrs Simpson bang on about the decorating she was doing at home as I fixed some old books at the main desk.

  ‘. . . so in the end I just went for an olive green carpet.’

  ‘Great.’ I picked at a roll of sticky tape with my thumb, wondering if this was how worried Mum felt about Dot every single day.

  ‘I mean, I briefly considered the sage green, but I thought it was a little intense.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Honestly, Zoe, I’ve never seen sage that colour in my life and I should know because I do a lot of cooking, and that’s precisely what I said to the salesman. No, I think I’ve made the correct choice. Olive green is better. Calmer.’

  ‘Yeah, definitely.’

  ‘And cheaper, incidentally, so I could – isn’t that your friend?’ Mrs Simpson asked.

  ‘Absolutely,’ I said, not listening.

  ‘Over there? By the spiral staircase?’

  She pointed a book at a figure and I gasped. Aaron was moving along the Literature shelves, searching for a book, paying no attention to me whatsoever. He scratched his head, looking baffled no doubt on purpose, wanting me to go up and offer to help. I screwed up a label. Stood up. Lost my nerve. Sat back down again. My leg jiggled under the desk and then I jumped to my feet. Tipping the Returns box upside down, I prayed there was something from the Literature section.

  Two books on knitting patterns.

  One on bridges.

  An encyclopaedia about religion that I tossed aside and swore.

  I stuck my hand into the box and there, in the corner, was something else. I pulled it out quickly. A novel by George Eliot! Hugging the book to my chest, I hurried towards the stairs. Aaron had grabbed a book too and was reading the blurb, walking away from the shelf and Stu if he had any idea that I was hurrying towards him, it didn’t show in his face. I started going up the stairs as he started coming down, twisting and turning, our feet making the metal sing. We met in the exact middle of the spiral and it was like standing in a great swirl of Aaron’s DNA, and I was surrounded by him and wrapped up in him as the rest of the world faded to nothing.

  ‘Fancy seeing you here,’ I said. I even smiled because I was convinced he’d come to make amends.

  ‘It’s a library isn’t it? I needed a book.’ His tone surprised me. Winded me, actually. Aaron held up something by Dickens. ‘For my essay due on Monday. I left my copy at college. That’s the only reason I’m here.’

  I held up my own book and pointed at the first floor. ‘Yeah, well. This is the only reason I’m here. I have to return this book to the shelf.’

  We glowered at each other but there was something bigger than anger in our eyes. Neither of us moved. Neither of us wanted to move. I was blocking his way and he was blocking mine and we just kept standing there and standing there, people moving above our heads and below our feet as we hung suspended between two floors.

  The air was alive. Full. Buzzing and humming and crackling like that static before a storm.

  ‘You shouldn’t have called me a bitch,’ I said at last.

  ‘You shouldn’t have acted like one,’ he replied but still we stared into each other’s eyes remembering that night and all the others before, and there was the owl a
nd the bonfire and the wall near my house and the window with our trembling hands. A thousand missed opportunities.

  A thousand and one.

  ‘Can you move please?’ Aaron forced out. ‘I need to get going.’

  Too disappointed to refuse, I stepped to the side to let him through. Our bodies brushed past each other, and he felt it too, I was sure of it, a searing burn on the skin as the staircase rattled in a way that shook our bones.

  On the first floor, a fat man approached, asking about the crime section as Aaron reached the librarian’s desk.

  ‘Are there any books by American writers?’ the man asked. ‘Other than Grisham, I mean.’ Down below, Aaron was handing over his card. There was a flash of brown – his eyes flicking in my direction – and a flush of pink when he realised that I’d noticed. ‘I’ve read every book he’s written. Except The Pelican Brief, but I saw the film so I know the plot.’ My lips ached with all the things I wanted to say. Needed to say. ‘Of course it’s not quite the same as reading it but—’

  ‘I’m sorry,’ I interrupted as Mrs Simpson scanned Aaron’s book and stamped the date and he set off towards the exit. ‘Sorry. I just have to . . .’ The sentence tailed off as I charged down the stairs. ‘Wait,’ I urged under my breath, racing past the desk as Mrs Simpson hissed my name. My hands slammed against the cold glass of the door and I left it spinning as I darted across the foyer and out into the rain – proper English rain, falling in lines not dots, splattering my skin and soaking my hair and drenching my clothes. Frantic, I looked around, straining my eyes and my neck as I searched the busy pavement for Aaron, but it was hopeless. He had gone.

  Back in the foyer, I sank to the floor by the radiator, sitting on my heels, my head in my hands. That was it. My one chance over – but then I heard a toilet flush and sure enough Aaron appeared from the loos, wiping his hands on his jeans. Scrambling to my feet, I dashed over, my shoes squelching and my fringe smeared against my forehead. Maybe it was wishful thinking but Aaron’s lips seemed to twitch as I dripped all over the floor, and Stu I didn’t mean that to be a metaphor, but perhaps it was because everything inside me melted at the hint of his grin.

 
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