Ketchup clouds, p.4
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       Ketchup Clouds, p.4

           Annabel Pitcher
 
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  Sometimes I think I’d be better off doing that. It’s getting harder to pretend now I’m back at school. Now his mum’s sniffing around too. There I was in English with my phone in my hand, and before you say it I know I shouldn’t have been looking but I was checking the time, willing it to be lunch so I could escape with Lauren. We’ve developed this routine where we grab sandwiches then hide away from the staring eyes in the music block in this room full of brass instruments. She sits on the case of a trumpet and I lean back against the wall with my feet on a trombone and we don’t say a lot, just complain about the soggy cucumber or the hard tomatoes or the rubbery chicken.

  There were five minutes of English left when the time disappeared and a name replaced it on the screen.

  SANDRA SANDRA SANDRA

  My phone clattered onto the desk, bounced twice then skidded towards my pencil case.

  SANDRA SANDRA SANDRA

  ‘Everything okay, Zoe?’

  I jumped. Mrs Macklin was twisting round from the board. I couldn’t even nod. A boy with freckles started to laugh.

  ‘Shut it, Adam!’ Lauren shouted from the other side of the classroom because we were sitting in alphabetical order and Mr Harris I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say her last name begins with a W whereas mine begins with a J. The boy closed his mouth but kept smirking. Other people were smiling too, nudging each other and pointing in my direction.

  ‘What’s the matter, Zoe?’ Mrs Macklin asked, peering over the top of her glasses, her kind blue eyes full of concern.

  ‘I’m fine,’ I managed.

  SANDRA SANDRA SANDRA SANDR—

  She left a message. When the bell rang, I disappeared into the girls’ toilets before Lauren could ask what was wrong. Heart pounding, I collapsed on the loo, pictures spinning through my mind – police and prisons and orange jumpsuits and courts and newspaper headlines screaming GUILTY! Sandra had realised the truth about May 1st, I was sure of it. Panic started at my fingertips and crawled up my arms into my chest and right up to my scalp, pulling at the roots of my hair.

  ‘Anyone in there?’ someone asked, banging on the toilet door.

  ‘Yeah,’ I called, holding my phone with trembling fingers.

  ‘Hurry up, then,’ the girl said, and I nodded even though she couldn’t see me and pressed the button to play the message before I could change my mind.

  There was a pause. A long one. I closed my eyes. Sandra’s voice came at last and it was quiet and croaky and full of these hesitations that made the sentences sound broken. She asked me to pay her a visit sometime. I opened one eye. She thought it would be nice for both of us. I opened the other. She told me that not a day goes by when she doesn’t wonder how I’m doing, and just before she hung up, she said it would mean a lot if I could pop in every now and again.

  ‘No one else really . . . understands, do they? People . . . Well, they don’t have a clue.’

  It goes without saying that I didn’t call her back and I deleted the message, shoving the phone into my bag as far as it would go, burying it under thousands of years in my History textbook. When I found Lauren in the music room, she handed me a sandwich and studied my face, but she didn’t ask me why I couldn’t eat it, just commented that the chicken was even more rubbery than usual.

  From,

  Zoe

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  October 27th

  Dear Mr Harris,

  Sorry it’s been so long but I’ve been struggling quite a lot recently and I even messed up the test on plant reproduction. Now don’t go thinking I was answering questions about tulips getting down and dirty on a flowerbed because that’s not how it works and it’s actually much more interesting than that, at least for me because I like science and not to boast but I would have got full marks if Dad hadn’t come into my room the night I was supposed to be revising.

  He told me he’d bumped into Sandra at the supermarket in the vegetable aisle and her eyes had filled with tears that had nothing to do with onions.

  ‘She’d love to see you,’ Dad said as I stared at my Biology text book, willing him to shut up. ‘Mentioned she’d called you a couple of times but you hadn’t answered.’

  ‘Shouldn’t phone me at school then,’ I mumbled and then I felt bad. None of this is Sandra’s fault. I dug the end of my pen into a diagram of a flower, desperate for Dad to leave.

  ‘She looked dreadful,’ Dad went on, sitting on the edge of my bed. ‘Really awful.’ I winced, the guilt actually painful. ‘Lost a ton of weight. Practically skin and bone . . .’

  ‘All right! I get it!’ I snapped, flinging my pen onto the carpet.

  Dad fiddled with the edge of the duvet. ‘Just thought you might like to know you’re not on your own, pet. That’s all. I shouldn’t have said anything.’ Dad stood up heavily and rubbed the top of my head. ‘If I could feel it for you, I would,’ he murmured and honest truth I would have given anything to push my pain right into his chest. And that was a horrible thing to want to do so I started to cry. I didn’t deserve a nice family or friends or even someone like you and that’s why I’ve not written for a while.

  But tonight I realised you might be lonely in your cell without my letters. No offence or anything but I can’t imagine you have many friends on Death Row, like I’m sure it’s not the most sociable of places with everyone telling jokes and doing high fives through the cell bars. Maybe you’ve come to rely on me as much as I rely on you. Perhaps we need each other so I shouldn’t feel too bad about telling you my story, which I desperately need to do because it’s eating me up inside and you’re the only person in the world who might understand. I can’t wait a second longer so I’ll start the morning after Max’s party with me lying in bed suffering from my first ever hangover probably making this noise ajooodfeeoihfiidjog.

  PART THREE

  Surprise surprise Mum didn’t care that I was more ill than ever in my life. She yanked my curtains apart. Sunshine punched me between the eyes with a bright yellow fist.

  ‘Up,’ she ordered, opening my window, which looked out over the back garden. ‘Shower. Breakfast. Dusting.’

  ‘Dusting?’ I croaked.

  ‘And then vacuuming. And you can clean the bathroom as well.’ I pulled the duvet over my head. Mum pulled it back again. ‘Drinking, Zoe. What were you thinking?’

  ‘I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t even drink that much.’

  ‘Drinking anything at your age is unacceptable. Completely unacceptable. This is a big year for you, Zoe. Start of your GCSEs. Coursework. You know your father and I have high hopes for you. There’s no point frowning,’ she said, because I’d pulled a face. I hated the school conversation. Really hated it. ‘You may be clever, but if you want to go into law then you’re going to have to get the top grades.’ I glanced at Bizzle The Bazzlebog on my desk. ‘Writing doesn’t pay,’ Mum said firmly. ‘Law does. We’ve talked about this. You agree with me.’

  ‘I know,’ I muttered, though it wasn’t true. It was the same whenever careers were mentioned. It was easier to go along with whatever Mum said because I felt as if I owed her or something for all the hard work she was putting in.

  ‘Well, then. You’re going to have to work hard. Not throw your chances down the drain.’

  ‘It was only a couple of drinks, Mum. I won’t do it again.’

  ‘You won’t have the chance to do it again!’ she said, picking my jeans off the carpet and hanging them in the wardrobe. ‘You’re grounded for two months. And I’m taking your phone.’

  I didn’t move for an hour. I actually couldn’t. Even lifting my head to have a drink of water made me feel sick. Dad told Dot I had flu so she sprinted into my bedroom in her pyjamas, holding out a blue cardboard crown. She’d written Get Well Soon on the front, except she’d forgotten one of the o’s so it said Get Well Son. On top of her own head was a bigger crown made out of pink cardboard. She beamed when I put mine on.

  ‘Now we can be the King and Q
ueen of the world and also the universe,’ she signed.

  I bowed and held up the duvet. ‘Climb in, Your Majesty.’ Dot scrambled into my bed and we cuddled for ages, the spikes of our crowns jutting out on the pillow. I did my jobs eventually, dragging myself around the house in my pyjamas. As I scrubbed the bathroom, my mind jumped between the two boys so I drew two hearts on the toilet bowl with yellow bleach.

  When I flushed, it made the water frothy, which just so happened to be exactly how I felt, my excitement bubbling all over itself. I couldn’t wait to tell Lauren, picturing her face as I described the kiss with Max. Maybe I’d see him at lunch. The Boy with the Brown Eyes too. We’d share secret smiles over fish and chips, the tang of salt and vinegar and love in our noses.

  All things considered, I was in a pretty good mood. Mum and Dad barely spoke to me, but they didn’t say much to each other either, no doubt still seething from the night before. Dad was in the garage polishing the BMW, and Mum was busy with Dot, practising the lip reading that the speech therapist set as homework.

  ‘Bank,’ Mum said clearly. ‘Bank. Bank. Bank.’

  ‘Pant?’ Dot signed.

  Soph pulled a face. Dressed head to foot in black, she was lying on the lounge floor with her white rabbit, Skull. A maths book lay at her side. Dot was sitting on Mum’s lap in a leather armchair, her eyebrows scrunched up underneath her pink crown.

  ‘Nearly,’ Mum said, but a line appeared in the middle of her forehead.

  ‘Can we stop now?’ Dot signed, scratching the end of her nose and looking fed up.

  ‘I’m stuck on question four,’ Soph announced, but Mum adjusted the crown on Dot’s head and carried on.

  Soph picked up her maths book and held it in the air, the stone of her mood ring glinting dark blue.

  ‘Find the mean average of the following numbers. How can an average be mean? It doesn’t make—’

  ‘Back,’ Mum interrupted. Dot sucked on her bottom lip, thinking. ‘Back,’ Mum said again. She pointed over her shoulder to give Dot a clue. ‘Back.’

  ‘Back?’ Dot signed and Mum actually cheered.

  ‘Good girl!’ she said, shaking Dot’s arms in celebration. Dot giggled as Mum kissed her on the cheek. Soph tossed her maths book onto the carpet.

  ‘Biro?’ she muttered, and I nodded.

  Soph held out a red one. We were crouching among Mum’s shoes in the big wardrobe in my parents’ bedroom where we always smoked pens and discussed stuff that needed darkness. Soph put a blue pen in her mouth and pretended to inhale. She blew out nothing and tapped the biro three times into Mum’s trainer as if getting rid of ash. I sucked on my biro and exhaled slowly.

  ‘How was the party?’ Soph asked. ‘You were so drunk, Zo. When you came in you did this hiccup that made you sound like a seal.’

  I nudged her with my toe as she did a loud impression. ‘Shut up!’

  Soph grinned, putting her chin on her knees, her long hair falling round her legs. ‘What was it like, then?’

  ‘What was what like?’

  ‘Being drunk,’ she whispered, her green eyes shining in the darkness.

  I thought for a moment. ‘Dizzy.’

  ‘Dizzy good or dizzy bad?’

  ‘Dizzy medium. It started off quite fun but then I felt awful.’

  ‘What did you drink?’

  ‘Vodka and this whisky a boy gave me.’

  ‘A boy. Did you kiss him?’

  ‘Of course,’ I said, taking a long sophisticated drag of my pen.

  ‘Who was it?’

  ‘Someone called Max.’

  ‘Good looking?’

  ‘Very. And he’s popular and practically everyone in the school likes him.’

  ‘So why did he kiss you then?’ she smirked.

  I kicked her again, but decided to be honest. ‘I don’t know. He was really drunk.’ Something inside me twisted but I kept my voice casual. ‘He probably won’t even remember tomorrow. You know what boys are like.’

  She dropped her pen in Mum’s trainer and started fiddling with the laces. ‘Sounds better than listening to Mum and Dad arguing anyway.’

  ‘Grandpa?’

  Soph nodded, tying a big bow. ‘Is he going to die, Zo?’

  ‘At some point.’

  ‘You know what I mean.’

  ‘He’s old,’ I replied because I didn’t know what else to say.

  Soph lifted the trainer by the loop of the bow and tapped the base of the shoe. It swung from side to side like a pendulum.

  ‘I reckon he should come and live with us,’ she said. ‘I don’t think he should be on his own if he’s dying.’

  ‘We don’t have any spare rooms.’

  ‘I could move in with you,’ Soph suggested.

  ‘No chance! You snore like a pig.’

  ‘Don’t.’

  ‘Do. Anyway, Mum would never let him in the house.’ The trainer moved back and forward in the air.

  ‘Why not?’ Soph asked.

  I put the biro in my mouth and sucked, trying to remember the argument at Grandpa’s house all those years before. Before I could answer, Mum shouted up the stairs. Soph tapped the trainer a bit harder. It swung more violently.

  ‘Soph!’ Mum called again. I nudged my sister but she didn’t move. ‘SOPH! Homework.’

  ‘Now she’s got time,’ she muttered, letting the trainer fly off her finger. It crashed against the wooden door. Bang.

  We were just about to climb out of the wardrobe when Mum entered the bedroom and took off her slippers, placing them neatly by her bed. Massaging her forehead, she sank onto the mattress. Dad followed, taking off his oily shirt and dropping it on the carpet.

  ‘Laundry basket,’ Mum said.

  ‘Give me a second,’ Dad snapped, taking his trousers off too.

  Soph’s hand slammed over her mouth hiding a tiny snort of laughter. The lid of the laundry basket was lifted. There was a flump as clothes were thrown inside. I bent forwards slowly to get a better view through the crack.

  ‘I’ve been thinking . . .’ Dad started.

  ‘Not now, Simon.’ Mum plumped up the cream pillow then settled back onto it. ‘My head’s pounding.’

  ‘Just hear me out, okay?’

  Mum frowned but said, ‘Go on.’

  ‘Why don’t we compromise on Zoe?’ Soph dug her fingers into my leg and I shrugged in the darkness.

  ‘What do you mean?’ Mum asked.

  ‘Well, if you think Soph and Dot are too young to visit my dad, Zoe can still go.’

  ‘I don’t want any of the girls to visit him!’ Mum snapped. ‘It’s the principle of the matter.’

  Dad sat down on the bed. ‘Principles are hardly important any more.’

  ‘How can you say that?’

  ‘You didn’t see him, Jane. He was old. Lonely. We’ve ignored him for years and I—’

  ‘He’s ignored us too! And we would never have severed ties if he hadn’t said. . . If he hadn’t accused . . . It was unforgivable. You’ve said so yourself a hundred times! And now you’re expecting me to forget about it and play happy families? No,’ she said resolutely. ‘No. I can’t do that.’

  Dad looked as if he was about to argue, but stood up instead. For a few minutes, neither of them spoke as Dad put on some clean clothes.

  ‘How was the lip reading?’ he asked at last. ‘Any better?’ The pillow rustled as Mum shook her head from side to side, looking worried. Dad didn’t seem to notice. He pulled on a sock then tugged it off again, examining it closely. ‘Hole. Are there any clean socks on the radiator?’ When Mum didn’t reply, he said, ‘Don’t stress, pet. She’ll get there.’

  ‘You don’t know that.’

  ‘’Course I do. If you keep practising then—’

  ‘Practising might not be enough,’ Mum replied, propping herself up on her elbows. ‘I’ve been thinking about it. A lot, actually.’

  ‘I know what you’re going to say,’ Dad muttered as he threw the holey sock back in his draw
er. ‘And the answer’s no.’

  ‘But why? What’s wrong with trying surgery again?’

  ‘We’re not putting her through it,’ Dad said, referring to the cochlear implant that had got infected and had to be removed. ‘Dot’s happy as she is.’

  ‘But surgery might help!’

  ‘She can make that decision for herself when she’s older.’

  ‘It might be too late when she’s older,’ Mum argued, flopping onto her back.

  Dad gazed down at her. ‘You worry too much.’ He leaned forward to kiss the deep line in the middle of Mum’s forehead. And then her nose. And then her lips. Soph grabbed my leg, her face screwed up in disgust, but she needn’t have worried because Mum rolled away from Dad to face the wall.

  I stared at my own wall that night because I was too excited to sleep. Next day I jumped out of bed before even my alarm and Mr Harris maybe you know how it feels to get ready with trembling fingers. According to the article, you took Alice for a cheeseburger with curly fries for your first date and you probably did something romantic e.g. drank chocolate milkshake out of one glass with two straws. The journalist said you met her when you were eighteen at a baseball game because you were the bowler and she was a cheerleader and it was true love for ten years until you stabbed her.

  When I arrived at school, Lauren spotted me by the art department and came running over. For once in my life I had a story to tell and I almost laughed out loud as she grabbed my arm and yanked me into an empty classroom. Pictures hung from pegs above our heads and the windowsill was crammed full of jars holding paintbrushes. The air smelt wet, sort of muddy. Maybe it was clay.

  ‘You heard about Max then?’ I said, grinning. I couldn’t help it. ‘God, I’ve been dying to tell you, Loz. I would’ve called you yesterday but Mum took my phone and made me clean the toilet.’

  ‘So that’s why you didn’t answer! I’ve been calling you and calling you. Left you about a hundred messages.’ She sounded stressed. Looked it too, tucking her black hair behind her ears where it didn’t stay because it was too short.

  ‘What’s up?’ I asked slowly.

  ‘You’re not going to like this.’ She pulled her own phone out of her pocket and stared at the screen, picking her lip with her finger. ‘Max sent the picture to Jack,’ she whispered. ‘And Jack sent it to everyone else. Everyone.’

 
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