Ketchup clouds, p.5
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       Ketchup Clouds, p.5
 

           Annabel Pitcher
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  As Lauren turned the screen towards me, I sank onto a stool, my stomach falling into my shoes.

  A picture.

  A picture of me with my eyes closed, my hair fanned out on the duvet, my bare breasts pointing straight at the camera. Lauren rubbed my shoulder supportively and spoke in a soothing voice.

  ‘At least you’ve got good tits.’

  Really good ones, apparently. Every time I walked into a lesson, someone wolf-whistled, and boys I didn’t know stared at me in the corridors, and this tall guy stopped me by the P.E. department after lunch.

  ‘Where’ve you been hiding?’ he said in a creepy voice as I shuddered.

  I hadn’t been hiding anywhere. I’d been in the same classrooms at the same school for three entire years. Writing stuff down in my books. Listening to the teacher. Talking to Lauren in the playground. But all of a sudden, people were gazing at me in lessons and studying me in cloakrooms and watching me buy a cheese sandwich from the canteen as if I was doing something different. Something interesting.

  I’d wanted attention, but not like this. It was a relief when the final bell rang. Grey clouds had gathered in the sky and it was cold so I buried my face in my coat and hurried past the netball courts. Max appeared at the school gate a few metres in front of me wearing a blue jacket that complimented his tanned skin. He was tossing a football into the air, his bag at his feet which fyi were white trainers, strictly prohibited in school, and his short dark hair was carefully styled, sort of sticking up at the front. He looked good, no doubt about it, but that was irrelevant. Completely irrelevant, I told myself again and again as my chest fluttered like a daddy longlegs was trapped inside it. A group of girls slowed down to watch as I focused on the exit, marching past Max, my nose most probably in the air.

  ‘Zoe! Wait!’ I spun round so fast I got a mouthful of my own hair. I swiped it out of my face. Max dropped the ball, surprised I was angry.

  ‘When did you take it?’ I asked, charging towards him but not that fast because my school skirt was tight. The group of girls gawped, five mouths opening at the exact same moment. Max shifted about on the spot. ‘I don’t remember you having a phone.’

  ‘Everyone’s got a phone,’ he said lamely. ‘And I told you I was taking a picture. Relax.’ He chanced a smile. ‘It’s not a big deal.’

  ‘Don’t patronise me,’ I growled. ‘And don’t lie. You didn’t say anything about taking a picture.’

  Smirking, he leaned in close smelling of aftershave and chewing gum. ‘’Course I did. You just don’t remember. It’s not my fault you can’t take your alcohol.’ He actually winked. ‘Honestly, you were so drunk . . .’

  ‘Everyone’s seen it,’ I said, my voice shaking with fury. ‘The whole school. How dare you? I mean, what gives you the right? Just because you’re popular? Is that it? You think you can do whatever you like?’

  Max blew out his cheeks. ‘No. Don’t be stupid.’

  ‘Oh, I’m not the stupid one. You are. You thought you could flirt your way out of it like I’m some dumb girl who’s going to be appeased by a wink from the Mighty Max Morgan.’ I looked him up and down in disgust. ‘Please.’

  He whispered, ‘You’re so cute when you’re angry.’ Snarling in frustration, I made to leave, but Max grabbed my hand. ‘Look, it wasn’t my fault, all right?’ I tried to protest but he carried on quickly. ‘Well, it wasn’t. I only sent the photo to Jack. He was the one who forwarded—’

  ‘But you were the one who took it in the first place!’ I spat. ‘Without me knowing!’

  Rain was falling now, heavy drops of water splattering my coat.

  ‘I’m sorry, okay? I’ll make it up to you.’

  I snatched my hand away. ‘How, exactly?’ Max’s face softened for a moment. He was about to speak when three of his friends sprinted towards the bike shed, shirts sticking to their skin.

  ‘Asking for another photo?’ Jack yelled, unlocking his bike.

  Max held up his hands as if he’d been caught out. ‘Guilty!’

  ‘Don’t blame you, mate. She looked good.’

  ‘Well,’ Max shrugged, all his cockiness back in a flash. ‘Not bad.’

  He winked once more before running off and Mr Harris I think that’s where I’ll stop tonight, with me watching Max jump onto the back of Jack’s bike, speeding out of the school gate with his head thrown back in laughter. Next time I’ll tell you what happened at the bonfire and believe me you’ll be shocked, but don’t worry, you won’t have to wait ages for the next part of the story. It’s been such a relief to talk to you again and maybe you got something out of it too. Honest truth my heart aches for you trapped in prison with no distraction to speak of. All I can hope is that I’m wrong about Death Row and there’s a friendly inmate in the cell next to yours. I’m crossing my fingers he’s a chatty rapist who knows a few good jokes as well.

  From,

  Zoe

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  November 3rd

  Hello again Mr Harris,

  The clocks have changed so it’s getting darker an hour earlier, not that it makes much difference to us because the world’s always black when we talk. I wonder if your meal arrived when the stars were brighter and the moon shone earlier because the guards had put back the clocks. Now I come to think of it, I bet they didn’t even bother. I bet it doesn’t matter to criminals if it’s 3pm or 5pm or 7pm. Probably it doesn’t even matter that it’s a Sunday. If every hour of every day is the same, I guess time just disappears.

  Time didn’t disappear when I was grounded after Max’s party last year. September was slow but October barely moved. After the excitement with the photo, school went back to normal and in case you’re wondering I never got to see the back of the recycle bin. I didn’t bump into The Boy with the Brown Eyes either and life plodded on for a few weeks with nothing much happening except a lot of bickering from Mum and Dad because he kept coming home late after visiting Grandpa at the hospital. At first Mum would plate up his dinner and leave it in the microwave but then one night she chucked it in the bin and Mr Harris I reckon that’s a good place for us to begin.

  PART FOUR

  ‘There’s a tin of beans in the cupboard,’ Mum said when Dad stared inside the empty microwave, his hands on his hips. He sniffed the air and I wondered if he could smell the chilli con carne we’d eaten earlier and the beef Soph had spilt on the carpet when she’d tried to smuggle a bit to Skull.

  Dad got a tin opener out of the drawer. ‘Grandpa’s no better,’ he sighed. Mum made no sign she’d heard him, gazing closely at the laptop screen. Dad poured the beans into a bowl and for a split second I wondered if Bizzle was about to make an appearance, plopping out all blue and wet and covered in sauce. I smiled to myself, keen to finish my homework so I could write another chapter of the story. ‘Good day then folks?’ Dad asked, trying to make conversation.

  ‘Average,’ Mum muttered.

  ‘Probably better than mine.’

  ‘It’s not a competition, Simon.’

  ‘Didn’t say it was. I’ve just had a right stinker, that’s all. I need to talk to you about it actually.’ He punched some buttons on the microwave then watched the dish rotate slowly.

  ‘I’m a little busy at the moment,’ Mum said.

  ‘It’s important.’

  ‘So is this.’

  ‘What are you looking at?’

  ‘Nothing that would interest you,’ she sniffed.

  ‘If that’s what I think it is, you’re wasting your time.’

  ‘No harm in looking,’ Mum said, clicking on a page about cochlear implants as the microwave pinged. Dad pulled out the bowl and stuck his finger into the beans.

  ‘How long do you put these in for? They’re still cold.’

  ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake,’ Mum snapped, standing up and making a grab for the bowl. Dad didn’t let go of the other side. ‘Can’t you do anything for yourself?’

  ‘I didn’t say you had to do it!’
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  Mum yanked the bowl out of Dad’s hands and flung it back inside the microwave.

  ‘Give us a second, Zo,’ Dad said in a low voice. ‘I need to talk to your mother.’

  ‘I’m working,’ I muttered, not looking up from my homework. I tapped a biro between my teeth to show I was thinking hard and not to be disturbed.

  ‘Just five minutes, pet. Please?’

  ‘Leave her, Simon. She’s studying.’

  ‘She can study in her bedroom,’ Dad replied. ‘Go on, Zo.’

  In a huff, I picked up my books and disappeared out of the kitchen. Of course I did what any normal person would do and put a glass against the lounge wall, but all I could hear was the blood swirling round my own brain, which in actual fact was a relief because I was starting to worry that clots might run in the family. They were in there for an hour. The next three nights too. I had no idea what they were talking about, and when Soph stuck a straw underneath the gap in the door to spy, all she could see was a bit of fluff on the carpet.

  A week later, things got even stranger. I came back from school to find Dad pacing up and down the hall, loosening his tie. Mum’s bum was sticking out of the shoe cupboard.

  ‘Where’re you going?’ I asked, my stomach clenching. Dad never came home early.

  ‘Out,’ Mum said, shoving her feet into a pair of high heels.

  ‘Well, obviously. But where? To see Grandpa?’

  ‘Not likely,’ Mum replied, dropping her bag on the hall table next to a leaflet about Bonfire Night. She put on some lipstick as Dad bobbed up and down on the balls of his feet.

  ‘Why are you getting all dressed up?’ I asked.

  ‘You don’t need to worry about that,’ Dad said.

  I took off my coat and put it on the banister. ‘But I am worried about it.’

  Mum rubbed her lips together and fiddled with the collar of her blouse. ‘We’ll explain later. Soph’s on the computer and Dot’s playing with her dolls. I’ve made some pasta so you can have that if you get hungry.’ She paused, looking worried. ‘Promise you’ll watch your sisters and call me if anything—’

  ‘If I do that, can I go to this tomorrow night?’ I interrupted, holding up the leaflet about the bonfire. Mum read the details. ‘It’s been two months,’ I reminded her. ‘Everyone at school’s going and I was only meant to be grounded for—’

  ‘All right,’ Mum replied, picking up the keys to the BMW. ‘But only if you get your homework done tonight. And fix your tie, Simon.’ Dad ignored her, snatching the keys from her hand as he closed the front door.

  Mr Harris I was convinced they were going to see a lawyer about getting a divorce. I sank onto the stairs, feeling sick. I knew exactly how it was going to be. I’d heard about it from people at school. Dad would rent a flat and eat fish fingers every night and forget to buy washing up liquid so there wouldn’t be enough clean knives and we’d have to spread butter with the back of a spoon. Mum would put on three stone and lie on the sofa in pyjamas watching documentaries about women who used to be men. That’s precisely what happened to Lauren’s mum until Lauren said enough is enough and turned off the TV just as Bob’s new breasts were about to be revealed. Her mum was annoyed but it was a wake-up call and she lost weight by only eating protein, and then went on a date with a younger man in a pair of Lauren’s size eight jeans.

  I stared at my own jeans, drying on the radiator. I couldn’t let it happen to my family. Creeping into my parents’ bedroom, I started going through Mum’s bedside table to find out what was going on. In the top drawer was a jewellery box with a key in the lock. Checking the coast was clear, I turned it, hearing a satisfying click. Inside were bits of baby hair in plastic wallets from me and Soph, tiny prints of our hands and feet, and the wristbands we wore in hospital when we were born. Dot’s baby stuff must’ve been in another box but I didn’t try to look for it because my attention had been caught by a letter in a yellowing envelope underneath a bag containing my first baby tooth.

  Dad’s handwriting, but faded. I can’t remember exactly what it said but there was cheesy stuff about Mum’s blonde hair feeling like gold silk and her green eyes looking like calm rock pools and her confidence shining like starlight, powerful and sparkling and lighting up all the darkness around her. The mum I knew was worried about E-numbers and putting red socks in the wash with white t-shirts and making sure we took our vitamins. I felt sort of sad that I never knew this other woman, but I put everything back in the correct place then opened a second drawer.

  A whole load of stuff about cochlear implants, printed off the Internet, pages and pages of it, highlighted in pink. Underneath that was a letter from the bank saying something about a remortgage. Remortgage. I’d never heard of the word but the letter looked official. Feeling as if I was getting somewhere, I forced myself onto Soph’s lap in the study.

  ‘Get off!’ she cried. I sat down harder, taking over the computer. ‘Oh God, Zo, you’re so heavy!’

  I found this forum for middle-aged people. TeaCosy7 said she was considering it to pay for a patio. Considering what though? I searched further. Remortgaging turned out to be a way of releasing money tied up in a house if you wanted funds to buy something big, or if you were having money troubles.

  ‘Money troubles?’ Soph asked, peering round my body. ‘Who’s having money troubles?’

  ‘We are,’ I said happily. Well, it was better than divorce.

  We got hungry before my parents came home so I heated up the pasta and we ate it at the kitchen table. When Soph was picking at the bits of olive left on her plate, I stole her phone and sprinted upstairs as she swiped at my heels.

  Charging into the bathroom, I locked the door and called Lauren. Soph posted a note under the door saying that I was DEAD in block capitals next to a picture of me with a knife stabbing my brain and a p.s. that asked if she could borrow a protractor to finish her maths homework. Mum and Dad came back while I was chatting in the empty bath, my feet propped up on the gold taps.

  ‘Get down here, Zoe!’ Mum shouted.

  ‘So promise I can come and live with you if we’re made homeless?’ I asked Lauren.

  ‘Sure. We’ll start our own business like a dog walking business called The Dog’s Bollocks because we’ll be the best at what we do.’

  ‘Zoe!’ Mum called again.

  ‘I have to go. See you at the bonfire tomorrow,’ I said quickly.

  ‘Give me a bark.’

  ‘I have to go!’

  ‘Only if you bark.’

  ‘Woof.’

  Lauren laughed as I ended the call. On the landing there was a flash of silver as a shiny figure hurtled towards me.

  ‘What are you doing?’ I gasped. Dot was dressed head to foot in tinsel.

  ‘I found the Christmas decorations in Mum and Dad’s room.’

  I dropped to my knees and signed quickly. ‘You have to take it off! I was supposed to be looking after you!’

  Dot spun on the spot with her arms in the air. ‘I can’t wait for Christmas,’ she signed. ‘For Santa. Is it true he brings you anything you want?’

  ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But you have to—’

  ‘Anything in the whole wide world?’ she signed, watching me closely.

  ‘Yes. But you have to change.’

  Dot pointed at two baubles dangling from her ears. ‘Do you like my jewellery?’

  I gritted my teeth. ‘I love it. But please go and take it all off. Mum’s home.’

  Dot’s eyes widened and she shot off, running into her room and slamming the door. In the kitchen I found Mum piling up the dirty plates by the sink.

  ‘Thought you’d leave the washing up for me?’ Mum rebuked.

  I rolled up my sleeves. ‘Sorry.’

  ‘And have you made a start on your homework?’

  ‘Not yet.’

  ‘Zoe!’

  ‘I’ve got all weekend!’ I protested, filling the sink with water. ‘And I’ve only got to answer ten maths questions and write an in
troduction for my English coursework.’

  ‘Coursework? You didn’t mention that!’

  ‘It’s only the opening paragraph.’

  ‘Still, you can’t rush it.’

  ‘I didn’t say I was going to rush it,’ I muttered, scrubbing tomato and garlic sauce off a plate. ‘I love English. I know what I’m doing.’

  ‘I’ll help you.’

  ‘You don’t need to, Mum. I’ve got all these notes from my teacher. Practically a whole exercise book full of them.’

  Mum opened the fridge looking for something to eat as I put the clean plate on the draining board. ‘Well, I’ll check it for you when you’ve done. English is important for law.’

  ‘English is important for writing too,’ I said, too quietly for her to hear.

  She took some salad out of the fridge and pressed a tomato between her fingers to check it was ripe. ‘This’ll do. Not very hungry, to be honest.’

  ‘Are you and Dad buying a patio?’ I asked suddenly.

  ‘A patio? No. Why do you ask?’

  I started on another plate. ‘No reason.’

  The following day it was the bonfire and Mr Harris I might be wrong but I don’t think you celebrate Bonfire Night in America so I will explain all about it right now. Four centuries ago, November 5th 1605 to be precise, Guy Fawkes and his friends tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament to kill the king. It was Guy Fawkes’ job to set off the gunpowder in the cellar but the murder attempt failed and everyone was so relieved that they lit fires and had parties to celebrate. The ritual stuck. People have been doing it in England ever since. On November 5th, everyone makes a model of Guy Fawkes out of old clothes stuffed with newspapers e.g. the Sun (or The Times if you want his limbs to be a bit posher), then they toss him into the flames. If you ask me it’s a bit harsh, people eating toffee apples as Guy Fawkes burns to death for a crime he didn’t even commit, but the night is still fun with fireworks and sparklers and smoke that stays in your hair for days.

 
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