Ketchup clouds, p.16
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       Ketchup Clouds, p.16
 

           Annabel Pitcher
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  ‘Look, Aaron, I didn’t know, okay?’ I blurted out. ‘I didn’t know you were brothers. Not at first.’ If there had been a smile, it vanished instantly. ‘I kissed Max the first time because you disappeared. That’s the only reason! You have to believe me.’

  ‘I didn’t disappear for long,’ Aaron muttered, crossing his arms. ‘I only went down the road to answer my phone because my mum called and she didn’t know we were having a party.’

  ‘I searched for you,’ I said, my hands held out. ‘I searched everywhere! And at the bonfire I only kissed Max because I was upset you had a girlfriend.’

  ‘But I don’t have a g—’

  ‘I know that now!’ I said, wiping rain off my face in frustration. ‘But I really thought you were together, I swear to God.’

  Aaron rolled his eyes. ‘So what, you just jumped to conclusions and went off with my brother?’

  ‘I didn’t know you were brothers when all this started,’ I cried, desperate for him to believe me. ‘How could I have known? I would never have—’

  ‘But you found out!’ Aaron replied. ‘You found out we were brothers and you carried on.’

  ‘Only because you told me to!’

  ‘So you’re just using him?’ Aaron asked.

  ‘No, I mean . . . Look, it’s not as if I don’t like Max, because I do. I really like him but—’ With a snarl of rage, Aaron put up his hood and stormed out of the door. I charged after him, seizing his arm and spinning him round before he had a chance to disappear down the road. ‘We’re not leaving it like this,’ I yelled as rain splashed against my skin.

  ‘Like what?’ Aaron shouted, yanking his arm away. His chest was rising and falling and our pulses were racing and I had to make him understand.

  ‘With you thinking that I chose Max!’

  ‘You did choose him!’

  ‘Because I didn’t know that you were an option!’ And without thinking about it, without worrying about the consequences, I grabbed Aaron’s face and pulled it towards mine, our mouths meeting with such force that it hurt in the sweetest way.

  We broke apart, shock on our faces. For a few seconds, nothing happened. Nothing happened and everything happened because in that instant we didn’t express a single word of regret and we both smiled with a happiness that was bigger than any guilt. Looking all around to make sure no one could see, Aaron clutched my hand and we started to run, adrenalin humming in our veins as we charged, desperate to find somewhere to be alone. The rain doubled in force like nature was on our side, trapping people indoors. The buildings and the cobbles and the steps and the alleyways and the churches and the parks – everything, the entire city, belonged to us for one precious moment that was long and wide and Stu we filled every last bit of it.

  This was living.

  Really living.

  Colours were brighter. Smells stronger. Sounds louder. I heard every glug of water bursting out of a drain, saw every shade of green as we sprinted past trees, smelt every bit of rain and mud and fumes as we took shelter in a tower that led up to the city wall. Aaron kissed me in the musty darkness, his lips soft but his fingers urgent. I could smell him, Stu – toothpaste and soap and deodorant – nothing special, but I closed my eyes, his hands on my neck, my back, my hair, maybe even my heart as our mouths moved and our bodies pressed and our feet got wet in a puddle we barely noticed.

  Love,

  Zoe xx

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  March 17th

  Hey there Stu,

  It’s a relief to be in here with you tonight. There’s a blanket that Dot must have left so I’ve curled up under that, happy to be hidden away. Honest truth I don’t know how long I can keep up the pretence any more, like Stu imagine an actress in The Wizard of Oz messing up her lines, the witch’s green make-up dripping onto the stage, except for me of course it’s the opposite, my good face melting away to reveal something bad underneath. The audience gasp. Mum. Dad. Sandra’s mouth the widest of all.

  She turned up again this evening. Unannounced. Ringing the doorbell three times and stepping into the hall without waiting for an invitation.

  ‘What’s she doing here?’ Dot signed. ‘And why hasn’t she washed her hair?’

  ‘Dot says hello,’ Dad muttered, showing Sandra into the lounge, being all ‘How are things’ and ‘Nice to see you’ though I could tell he was shocked by her sudden appearance.

  ‘She smells funny,’ Dot signed.

  ‘My daughter’s got a cold,’ Dad explained because Dot was waving her hand in front of her nose. ‘What can I do for you, Sandra?’

  He pointed at an armchair but Sandra knelt on the floor where I was sitting. Her t-shirt wasn’t much protection against the cold night and her thin arms were covered in purplish goose bumps. Dot wasn’t exaggerating about the smell. As Sandra turned her bag upside down and shook, I caught a strong whiff of alcohol on her breath. Photos fell onto the carpet by my feet.

  ‘For the display. At the memorial. I thought you might like to see them, Zoe.’

  Before I could respond, Dad frowned and said, ‘Did you drive here, Sandra?’

  Sandra just grinned, her lips stained with wine. ‘Look at this one,’ she said, holding up a photo of a little boy on his front with talcum powder all over his chubby legs. ‘And this!’

  ‘Fat baby,’ Dot signed.

  ‘Cute,’ Dad said. ‘Very cute.’

  Slippers shuffled on the carpet as Mum walked in with a book in her hand, stopping dead when she spotted Sandra spreading photos over the rug.

  ‘Er, hello,’ she said. ‘What’s going on?’

  ‘That lady’s gone crazy,’ Dot signed.

  ‘Sandra’s come to show us some pictures,’ Dad said, glaring at Dot who giggled. ‘Isn’t that nice?’

  A toddler with a chocolate-covered smile.

  A nine-year-old with a scab on his knee.

  First school photo.

  Last school photo.

  A photo of me at the Spring Fair standing between two brothers.

  Sandra passed it to me and I took it with hands that wouldn’t stop shaking. Someone would see them, I was sure of it, so I dropped the picture onto my lap and pressed my fingers between my knees, hating the clamminess of the skin. My face, that was impossible too, and I tried a smile but my lips felt wrong.

  ‘You wouldn’t guess that something terrible was about to happen,’ Sandra said softly, peering at the photo. ‘No clue whatsoever . . . There’s been something I’ve been meaning to ask you, actually,’ she muttered, and my stomach lurched. ‘Something about that night.’

  ‘I’m not sure Zoe’s up to it,’ Mum said quickly, seeing my face drain of colour. ‘She doesn’t like to talk about the Spring Fair.’

  ‘But it’s important.’

  ‘I think it’s better if we just look at these photos,’ Mum said. ‘I’m sure there are some lovely ones.’

  ‘Why did you leave?’ Sandra persisted and though she might have had a drink, her gaze was steady.

  ‘I told you before. We went for a walk,’ I said too quickly.

  ‘But why?’

  ‘That’s a nice one,’ Mum said, pointing at a picture of Max and Aaron and Fiona on three mountain bikes. ‘Very sweet. Let’s have a look at some others.’ She made to pick up a photo but Sandra gathered them into a pile.

  ‘I want to understand my son’s last movements.’

  My heart was frantic, slamming against my ribs, trying to get away from the questions as I jumped to my feet. ‘It’s hard for me,’ I said. My eyes filled with tears. ‘It’s hard for me to discuss it. Impossible. I dream about that night all the time and I’m scared of thinking about it because it still feels so—’

  ‘Easy, love,’ Mum said and Dad put his hand on my sweaty back.

  Sandra blushed, clutching the photos tightly. ‘I’m sorry. I just – I don’t understand why you left the fair. Through the woods. Where were you going?’

  ‘Nowhere. We got bor
ed,’ I lied. ‘That’s all. We got bored.’

  ‘If only you hadn’t,’ Sandra muttered and Stu that’s when I walked out of the room on shaky legs, pretending I wanted to make a cup of tea. Ten minutes later I was still staring at the kettle and it was Mum who had to flick the switch.

  Love,

  Zoe xxx

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  April 1st

  My dear Stu,

  In the end I told Sandra I couldn’t do the speech at the memorial service. I ran round to her house and battered down the door and sprinted into the conservatory, my throat roaring the word, ‘NO!’

  Sandra looked up from the photos with narrowed eyes. ‘What?’

  ‘No. Just no,’ I shouted, and I even pointed my trembling finger in her face. ‘No.’

  April Fools, Stu.

  Sometimes at night, I pretend that the past few months have been a big joke. Lying in the darkness, I tell myself that this is not my life. All I have to do is wait until 12pm and Sandra will turn round and shout ‘Got you!’ and a voice in the coffin will say ‘April Fools!’ and I will laugh and laugh and laugh until tears fall down my face and then the prison guards will open up your cell and you will dance out of Death Row with the lightest heart you’ve ever had in your chest and your wife will be waiting for you at home with no stab wounds to speak of.

  Let’s pretend for just one moment that could actually happen. You close your eyes and I’ll close mine and let’s dream the same dream across the Atlantic, lighting up the darkness between us. Can you see it, Stu? Can you see us up there, shining in all the black?

  Me neither.

  I don’t think the nun’s going to come to your rescue because I haven’t seen anything about it on Google. Maybe I didn’t ever believe it would happen because I don’t feel shocked that she’s not standing outside your prison with a petition of one hundred names. Maybe I never expected us to have a happy ending. At least we’ve got each other, for the next few days at least, so let’s make the most of it and start where we left off, with wet toes in soggy shoes squelching back up to the library.

  PART THIRTEEN

  We had it all worked out by the time we said goodbye in the foyer. Aaron was going to explain everything to Max that weekend before I saw him in school, where I would talk to him too, apologising to his face because I wasn’t a coward, then me and Aaron were going to take it slow and not rub his nose in it, waiting for Max to move on before I came round to the house. By the end of my shift, I’d convinced myself that Max would get over it in probably less than two weeks, choosing one of the thousands of other girls who were interested at school.

  ‘You look happy,’ Mum said when I climbed into the car with frizzy hair from the rain.

  My whole face seemed to twinkle as I grinned. ‘My shift was very rewarding.’

  ‘Come off it! A look like that can only mean one thing.’

  ‘Mum!’

  ‘I remember what it was like to be young, you know,’ she said. ‘Vaguely, anyway. Who is he then?’

  ‘No one!’ I cried, the tips of my ears pink.

  ‘No one must be very nice indeed,’ she said, checking her mirrors before setting off. ‘Be careful, though, won’t you? I don’t really like the idea of you getting distracted by boys.’

  ‘I’m not getting distracted by anyone.’

  ‘Good. Because boys come and go, you know. Not like exam grades. They’ll stay with you forever.’

  ‘Romantic,’ I muttered as we pulled out onto the road. The rain had stopped but the tyres splashed through puddles and I loved the noise it made and the grey sky lurking above the trees and the traffic and the shops and the whole ordinary extraordinary world.

  ‘It’s the truth, my love. There’ll be time for boys in the future but you’ve got one chance at school and—’ She stopped herself when I sighed. ‘Sorry.’

  I glanced at her, surprised. ‘It’s okay.’

  ‘No, it isn’t.’ She blew out her cheeks. ‘Maybe your dad had a point about me.’ She tapped my knee. ‘Don’t tell him I said that, though.’

  We drove the rest of the way in silence, both of us lost in thought. As we parked on the drive, Soph peeped out of her bedroom window but completely ignored my wave, swiping her curtains closed.

  ‘What’s up with her?’ I asked, climbing out of the car.

  ‘I’m afraid she isn’t in the best of moods,’ Mum said. ‘Those girls at school . . .’

  ‘Are they getting worse?’

  Mum shook her head looking worried. ‘Not exactly.’ She opened the boot and handed me a birthday cake for Dot in a big white box. ‘Don’t drop that! It was expensive.’ She picked up three more bags and followed me into the house, telling me to take off my shoes at the door. ‘I spoke to Soph’s teacher yesterday.’

  ‘Did you tell her about Portia?’

  ‘I did.’

  ‘And what did she say?’

  Mum lowered her voice. ‘That there isn’t a Portia in Soph’s class.’

  ‘Well, she must be in a different—’

  ‘And there isn’t one in the whole school,’ Mum finished as the white box almost ended up on the carpet. ‘She made it up, Zo. All of it.’

  Before I could take this in, Dot charged out of the lounge in her new crown, signing excitedly.

  ‘Is that my princess cake?’

  ‘Just as you ordered!’ Mum replied. ‘How’s my special birthday girl?’

  ‘Let me see! Let me see!’

  Mum put down the bags and lifted the lid of the white box. Dot’s eyes shone as she gazed at the pink icing, then she shot upstairs, bursting into Soph’s room.

  ‘Get out!’ Soph roared.

  ‘Goodness, she can be so grumpy,’ Mum muttered. ‘Not a wonder, really, with all the lies she’s been telling. Confronted her this morning. She admitted that she’d made it all up. Wouldn’t tell me why she’d done it though.’

  I made my way into the kitchen and put the box on the table, talking over my shoulder. ‘Well, that bit is obvious. She’s jealous, isn’t she?’

  ‘Of what?’ Mum asked, grabbing six candles, stopping to admire the cake.

  ‘Dot.’

  Mum looked up quickly. ‘Why would she be jealous of her?’

  I shrugged. ‘You spend all your time with her.’

  Mum held out a candle to push into the sponge then paused with her arm outstretched. ‘I have to, Zoe. She can’t hear . . .’

  ‘You don’t need to explain to me. I get it,’ I said, and for the first time, I thought I actually did. ‘It’s hard to see Dot struggle.’

  Mum swallowed, clutching the candles tighter. ‘Exactly.’

  ‘But Soph’s struggling too, Mum. If you’re not dealing with Dot then you’re arguing about Grandpa or jobs or money and, I don’t know, it’s hard listening to you fight all the time. I’m sorry,’ I said quickly, thinking I’d said far too much and was about to get in trouble.

  ‘Don’t be,’ she replied, sitting down suddenly, staring at the candles in her hand. I made to leave, but before I could walk out of the kitchen, Mum said, ‘Tell Soph I want to talk to her, will you?’

  I have no idea what was said, but Soph’s eyes were red and puffy when we ate lunch. The lasagne was perfect, the cheese crispy and golden on top. Giggling and snorting and signing like mad, Dot was high as a kite, excited about her bowling party the following day, wondering what presents her friends would buy and looking forward to wearing the special bowling shoes.

  ‘Do I get to keep them?’ she signed.

  Dad laughed. ‘No, silly! You have to give them back. But they’re yours for two hours.’

  ‘Two whole hours?’

  ‘Two whole hours,’ Dad repeated, tickling her chin.

  ‘Kids,’ Mum whispered to Soph, whose face broke into a grin.

  Now Stu you’re probably wondering what was going on at Aaron’s house and believe me I was thinking about that too, full of birthday cake, sprawled on the sofa as M
um and Dad had a long discussion in the kitchen. Who knows what they were going on about but for once they weren’t shouting so I could brood about the brothers in peace. Sort of peace. If peace feels like pleasant pins and needles in your stomach. There was fear tingling in there. Excitement too. For the hundredth time I checked my phone to find nothing but a picture of Dot as my screensaver, which by the way she’d taken of herself without me knowing, sticking out her tongue with her eyes rolled backwards, pushing up her nose so I could see inside her nostrils.

  Nothing passed the time, not flicking through a magazine or writing Bizzle the Bazzlebog or tidying my room until even my DVDs were in alphabetical order. There was nothing left to do except crawl under my purple duvet and wait. I organised it like a tent over my head, blocking out the universe, and that’s precisely where I was when my phone started ringing. I stared at the screen as Aaron’s name lit up my world.

  ‘Hey,’ I said, ridiculously pleased to hear from him.

  ‘Hey,’ he replied in the opposite tone.

  ‘How did it go? Was he mad? Did he punch you?’ There was no response. ‘Oh, God! He did, didn’t he? Are you okay?’

  Aaron exhaled noisily. ‘I was going to do it, I promise you.’

  ‘What do you mean, was going to? Didn’t you say anything?’

  ‘I couldn’t, Zo. Honestly. We had to meet up with my dad. He was out with his girlfriend last Wednesday so he asked to see us this afternoon instead. Had something important to tell us about her.’

  I closed my eyes, scared of where the conversation was heading. ‘Which was . . .?’

  ‘Put it this way, they aren’t splitting up.’

  ‘She’s pregnant?’

  ‘Nope. They’re getting married. He proposed on Valentine’s Day. The wedding’s in April.’

  ‘April? Isn’t that a bit soon?’

  ‘They don’t see the point in waiting. You should have heard him,’ Aaron said, sounding revolted. ‘He’s properly loved up.’

  ‘Are you okay?’

  ‘I am, but Max . . . He managed to keep it in when we were with my dad, but when he got home he kicked off. Badly.’

  I pulled the duvet off my head, suddenly needing air. ‘We still have to tell him.’ Aaron didn’t reply. Rolling onto my back, I stared at the ceiling with my hand on my forehead. ‘We can’t hide this. Not after yesterday. We have to tell him.’ The phone buzzed with the sound of nothing. ‘Aaron? Please say something.’

 
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