Ketchup clouds, p.7
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       Ketchup Clouds, p.7

           Annabel Pitcher
 
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  Funnily enough there’s an actual fly on the actual wall right now. Sort of. A little black one is caught in the web on the shed windowsill, stuck in the silk and staring at the garden probably wondering what on earth happened to its freedom. By the time the sun rises, I bet the spider will have eaten it. Judging by the sky, dawn’s not far off, so I probably should get back inside before Mum wakes up. Now the clocks have gone back, it’s getting light an hour earlier and that must be some consolation, Stuart. Even if you have dinner in the dark, you get breakfast in the sunshine, and I hope it feels warm on your skin.

  From,

  Zoe x

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  November 14th

  Hi Stuart,

  Don’t judge me because it really wasn’t my fault and I would never have agreed to go if Mum hadn’t started getting suspicious. When I got back from school she was on the phone. Don’t ask me how I knew she was talking to Sandra but I just did and she was making these noises, ‘ahah mmm yeah,’ and then she hung up and told me we were going to her house for a coffee.

  Of course I protested.

  ‘I don’t even like coffee!’

  ‘What’s the big deal?’ Mum asked and her eyes narrowed as if she were trying to send a search beam into my brain. ‘It might help you to see her. And I know she’d appreciate it. You like her, don’t you?’

  ‘Yeah. It’s . . . I’ve . . . I’ve got a sore throat, that’s all.’ Mum pushed a couple of painkillers into my mouth then ushered me out of the house. Quarter of an hour later I was sitting in Sandra’s tiny conservatory for the first time since the funeral.

  ‘Are you getting out much?’ Mum asked.

  ‘A little,’ Sandra replied. ‘Here and there.’ Dad wasn’t kidding about her weight. Gaunt face. Jutting collar bone. Thin arms. Her hair was different too. It used to be black with mahogany highlights, cut into layers, but the colour was fading and the style had grown out. ‘I’m trying to keep busy.’

  ‘Good idea,’ Mum said. ‘It’s the only way. Fill your time.’

  ‘I never realised there was so much of it,’ Sandra muttered. ‘Hours. I feel every minute.’

  The sun appeared, shining on the fountain in the garden. I saw an image of Max’s finger prodding the wings of a dead moth. I blinked hard to get rid of it, but it came back stronger, and then Aaron was looking up at the owl and then Max’s hand was on my thigh and then Aaron was studying my skin and lips and curves and my pulse was racing and my stomach was churning and I was just about to retch when Sandra asked, ‘And how are you, Zoe?’ I didn’t trust myself to speak.

  ‘She’s been awful,’ Mum said. ‘Her work’s suffering too.’

  ‘Well, they were close, weren’t they?’ Sandra said and Stuart it was one of those rhetorical questions that didn’t need an answer. ‘To have it all cut short like that . . .’ I stood up abruptly.

  ‘Everything okay, Zo?’ Mum asked. My hands were tingling and the room was too small and my school tie was too tight. I pulled and pulled but the knot was too stiff. ‘We’d better go,’ Mum said quickly. ‘She’s not very well. And I’ve left my other two girls with a neighbour. Thanks for the brew.’

  Sandra climbed to her feet, her face full of concern. It hurt to look at her, so I focused on the sky as Sandra pulled my head towards her shoulder.

  ‘I know how you feel,’ she said, squeezing me hard. ‘I really do. You’re welcome here any time.’ She pushed me back gently and put her hand against my cheek. ‘We can help each other.’ My fists clenched. My teeth too. And just when I thought I couldn’t stand her kindness a second longer, the hand was gone and Sandra was walking to the front door in a pair of old slippers coming apart at the seams. She paused by a picture hanging on the wall. ‘Have you seen this?’

  A silver frame.

  Me in a blue dress, my face more flushed than usual. And Max and Aaron grinning on either side of me at the Spring Fair.

  Lights from the dodgems shone in the background. Smoke from hot-dog vans hung in the air. A date in the corner said May 1st.

  ‘Is that . . .?’ Mum began.

  ‘The last photo ever taken of him, yes.’ My cheeks drained of colour. I actually felt it, pink trickling down my neck like face paint being washed away by cold water. ‘It’s my favourite,’ Sandra said. ‘He looks so happy. You all do.’ With her thumb, she rubbed our three faces and Stuart that’s when I ran outside and threw up by the tree.

  From,

  Zoe x

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  November 29th

  Hi Stuart,

  Hail’s banging on the roof and if you never have this type of weather in Texas then imagine heaven emptying out its freezer. The spider must be wondering what on earth’s going on. She’s standing in the middle of her empty web on jet black legs and I’ve got the strangest feeling she’s staring at me. Probably because of my outfit. Purple woolly hat and scarf over my dressing-gown, Mum’s hiking boots on my feet. I found it all in here so Dot must have been playing explorers because she uses this shed for her Wendy house. I’ve put Dad’s coat over my legs sort of like a quilt and it feels safe under here, protection against the rain and the wind and the disappearing hand and also Sandra’s screaming, which came into my dream for the first time tonight.

  I’d do anything to forget. Anything. Eat the spider or stand naked on top of the shed or loads of maths homework for the rest of my life. Whatever it took to wipe everything from my brain like you can with computers, pressing a button to delete the images and the words and the lies, which are just about to start in the next bit of my story.

  PART FIVE

  The day after the bonfire, Max was supposed to call. My hair still smelt of smoke and my stomach was fluttery and honest truth every single time my phone beeped my heart went from nought to sixty in a split second like the Ferrari I’d bought for Dad. Funnily enough we were talking about cars as we ate lunch at the kitchen table, which fyi was organic sausages and mashed potato.

  ‘A new series of Top Gear starts tonight,’ I told Dad, referring to this car programme he loves on TV. ‘Nine o’clock.’

  ‘Great,’ Dad said, but he didn’t sound that enthusiastic. ‘Shall I do it now?’ he asked Mum.

  She sipped a glass of water and said, ‘If you must.’

  Dad put down his fork and adjusted his plate so it was in the exact middle of the mat. ‘We have something to tell you,’ he signed with difficulty. Dot was squeezing loads of ketchup onto her plate. I tapped her knee and pointed at Dad. She looked up guiltily but then saw she wasn’t in trouble and pressed the bottle harder. Red spurted all over the table.

  ‘Idiot,’ Soph muttered.

  ‘We have something to tell you,’ Dad signed again, ignoring the mess. ‘Something important.’

  ‘We don’t want you to worry,’ Mum added, but the deep line in the middle of her eyebrows undermined her words.

  ‘Are you getting divorced?’ Soph asked, holding a bit of sausage in mid-air. ‘Because you’ve been arguing so much?’ Mum and Dad exchanged a guilty glance.

  ‘We haven’t been arguing that much,’ Mum said.

  ‘What’s going on?’ Dot signed because she sensed the tension but couldn’t follow the conversation. Her fingers were red from cleaning up the ketchup.

  ‘Mum and Dad are getting divorced,’ Soph signed for once. Dot’s hands flew to her mouth, her knife and fork clattering onto the table.

  ‘Sophie!’ Dad snapped. ‘We didn’t say that.’

  ‘Why are you getting divorced?’ Dot signed urgently, her face covered in ketchup now. ‘Did Dad sex another lady?’

  ‘What? No!’ Mum replied.

  ‘We’re not getting divorced,’ Dad said. ‘I lost my job, that’s all.’ My jaw fell open. Money troubles I knew about, but this was news to me. Dot pulled on my sleeve. Red marks on that too.

  ‘Dad lost his job,’ I signed, struggling to believe it. Dot sighed with relief and picked up her cu
tlery.

  ‘Did you get sacked?’ Soph asked. ‘What for? Did you lose loads of money for the law firm?’

  ‘Did you sex your boss?’ Dot signed.

  Dad exhaled slowly. ‘I wasn’t sacked. My firm merged with another so I was made redundant.’

  ‘When are you going to get another job?’ Dot asked, signing quickly. ‘Tomorrow? Or the next day? Or the day after that?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ he admitted as Dot stirred ketchup into her mashed potatoes then arranged them in blobs around the top of her plate.

  ‘Stop playing with your food!’ Mum signed.

  ‘They’re clouds,’ Dot replied.

  ‘Clouds aren’t red,’ Soph signed.

  ‘They are at sunrise,’ Dot signed back defiantly. ‘And it’s sunrise on my plate and the sausage thinks it’s lovely.’ She carved a smile onto the sausage with her knife.

  ‘You’re making a mess,’ Mum signed.

  ‘A beautiful mess,’ Dot beamed. She turned round her plate to show Mum. The sausage was lying flat on its back, grinning at the ketchup clouds.

  ‘Very nice,’ Mum said. ‘Now eat your lunch properly, there’s a good girl.’

  Dad got up to serve the extra sausages.

  ‘Something’ll come up. There are plenty of law firms around here and I’ve already started making calls. Money might be a bit tight for a while, but we’ll manage.’

  ‘And if not, we could always remortgage the house,’ I suggested. Mum was taken aback. ‘Free up some funds,’ I went on, nodding wisely.

  ‘Yes,’ Dad said, sounding impressed. ‘Exactly. Or your mum could find a job.’ He said it without thinking, dropping a sausage onto her plate. Mum’s green eyes widened so you could see all the white.

  ‘No chance!’

  ‘But—’

  ‘No chance,’ Mum said again. ‘My job’s at home. Here. With the girls. You lost your job. You find another.’

  Dad stared at Mum. Mum glared at Dad. Me and Soph looked at each other. Only Dot carried on eating, leaving the sausage with the smile to the very end of her lunch. She picked it up with her fingers and held it in front of her face. She waved solemnly as if to say goodbye, then bit off its head.

  Max didn’t call after lunch and he didn’t call when I was in the bath that evening. I sprawled on my bedroom floor in my pyjamas, trying and failing to do my French homework, poking my phone to check it was alive. I yelped as it beeped.

  A message!

  I rolled onto my back on top of all the French verbs I was supposed to be learning for a test. To live. To love. To laugh. To die.

  My house tomorrow after school?

  It was unbelievable. Actually unbelievable. I blinked twice then reread the message. Yes. There it was – an invitation to Max Morgan’s house. Just for me. I wanted to thrust the phone out of the window and beam his words up to the sky. Instead, I gazed at the lightshade, trying to think of the perfect reply. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was a no, Stuart. It had to be. Mum would never let me go to a boy’s house, never in a million years. But how to word the response? Call me shallow, but I didn’t want Max to lose interest, even if I did prefer his brother.

  I started to type. Deleted it. Started again. Got rid of that too. I tore out a blank page of my French book and after ten minutes of scribbling I had a reply I was happy with plus seventeen autographs and most probably a picture of a rabbit with huge front teeth aka the only thing I can draw.

  The message said I was busy but that I’d like to see him another time and just as my thumb hovered over the send button, the grandfather clock struck nine.

  ‘Dad! Dad? Top Gear’s about to start.’ There was no response. ‘Dad?’ I said again, dropping my phone on the carpet and wandering into the hall. Light was creeping underneath the study door so I turned the handle. ‘Top Gear’s on in . . .’ Dad was staring at the screensaver on the computer, his expression vacant. On the desk was a ring-binder, open at a page full of his handwriting. Holdsworth and son. Mansons. Leighton West. There were twenty other law firms on the list, and next to half of them, a cross.

  ‘Top Gear’s about to start,’ I said, shaking his arm.

  Dad yawned and stretched. ‘Record it, Zoe. I’ll watch it another time. I’m in the middle of something.’

  I thought he meant work, but when he wiggled the mouse, a picture of a couple appeared on the screen. In a crowded, smoky room, a girl had leapt into a man’s arms, one leg on either side of his waist, her feet stretching towards the ceiling. Her head was thrown back, brown hair just like mine brushing the man’s shiny shoes. The man was laughing with his eyes crinkled and his mouth wide open, bending her towards the floor with powerful arms.

  ‘Grandpa,’ Dad said. ‘And Gran. Don’t they look—’

  ‘Yeah,’ I muttered. ‘They do,’ because I just knew that Dad was going to say young.

  It wasn’t their faces, Stuart, and the fact they had no wrinkles. It’s hard to describe but it was sort of their mood. Their energy. You could see it in the sweat beads on Grandpa’s forehead. In the arc of Gran’s back. It wasn’t just dancing. It was living. Really living, like imagine the width of a moment rather than the length, and two people determined to fill every last millimetre of it.

  ‘Makes you think, doesn’t it?’ Dad said.

  ‘Definitely,’ I replied, and then, ‘Makes you think what?’

  ‘That life’s short. And there’s a lot more to it than worrying.’

  ‘And school,’ I added, perching on the edge of the desk.

  Dad chuckled. ‘Ah, nice try! Careful of the pictures.’ He tugged me off a pile of black and white photos. ‘I’m scanning them. Don’t want them to fade . . .’

  I felt as if he meant not like Grandpa so I asked, ‘How is he now?’

  Dad rubbed the bridge of his nose. ‘Not good, to be honest. His memory’s shot to pieces. Last week he couldn’t even remember that he danced. I took a few photos but he threw them to one side and asked for his Bible and a bowl of strawberry jelly.’

  ‘He doesn’t know this was him?’ I asked as the young man on the screen laughed and laughed and laughed. ‘What about Gran? Does he remember her?’

  ‘As an old lady, yes. But the stuff from the past has gone.’ Dad sounded so fed up, I slipped out of the door and returned with something hidden behind my back.

  ‘Ta da. Have this until you can afford the real thing.’ I waited for Dad to say thanks, but his face fell in on itself. He glanced from the Ferrari to the list of law firms on the desk. All those crosses. ‘I didn’t mean . . . Not because you’ve been made redundant. That’s not what I—’

  ‘It’s brilliant,’ Dad interrupted, taking the car and pushing it along the desk, making an engine noise in his throat, but it was half-hearted and we both knew it. ‘Thanks, pet,’ he said, as the car did one of those U-turns by the ring-binder and parked by the mouse.

  Dad went back to the pictures, his chin resting on his hand. He clicked a button and the dancing was replaced by a picnic in the rain, a young couple on a thick rug with no sun in sight apart from the beams shining out of their smiling faces. Grandpa’s hand clutched Gran’s shoulder and they were leaning against each other, their heads touching.

  ‘Why does Mum hate him so much?’ I asked. ‘He looks nice to me.’

  Dad cleared his throat. ‘She doesn’t hate him.’

  ‘But what happened, Dad? I don’t get it. Why aren’t we allowed to see him?’

  ‘Well, there was an—’

  ‘Argument. Yeah, I know. The day of the McDonald’s. But what was it about?’

  Dad cleared his throat a second time. ‘Don’t bother yourself with all that, pet.’

  ‘But I want to know.’

  Dad seemed as if he might cave, but then muttered, ‘Some things are better left in the past.’

  ‘Some things like what?’ I asked, aware I was pushing my luck.

  ‘Now’s not the time, Zoe.’

  ‘But why all the secrets? What’s
the big deal?’

  ‘Look, there’s no point in bringing it all up again,’ he snapped. ‘Your mum wouldn’t like it.’

  ‘Why though?’ I said, feeling annoyed. ‘What did he do that was so awful?’

  ‘Leave it!’ Dad exploded. ‘Honestly, Zoe. Know when to back off!’

  Hurt, I stormed out of the study, scooping up my phone from the bedroom carpet. This time as I read my reply saying that I couldn’t go to Max’s house, my thumb didn’t hover over the send button. It pressed delete. If Mum and Dad could have secrets then Stuart so could I. Angrily, I typed three letters.

  Yes.

  From,

  Zoe x

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  December 3rd

  Hi Stuart,

  It’s nearly Christmas. Sort of. In England all the shops start playing Jingle Bells in November and the Christmas lights are turned on in towns and cities on December 1st. I triple-checked Google but I couldn’t find any information about Christmas on Death Row but I bet the guards refuse to let you hang a stocking in your cell. Even if there is a tree in the prison, it probably doesn’t feel all that festive eating gruel behind bars and in actual fact I bet this time of year just makes you more miserable.

  That’s what Sandra told me yesterday. She rang again. My heart fell when I saw her name and honest truth I wasn’t going to answer but then I thought she might call the home phone and talk to Mum and invite us over. I picked up on pretty much the last ring as I wandered back from school underneath the flashing angels, and that makes it sound as if God’s messengers were showing their knickers which would have been a whole lot more interesting than the feeble lights above the main road by the church.

  Sandra said she was having a bad day. Probably I was supposed to offer to visit so we could reminisce about her dead son but Stuart I just said I had to bake something for a cake competition. It was the only thing I could think of because I was holding a Victoria sponge after my Food Technology lesson.

 
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