Thursday, 26 January 2017


Her hands were a love heart, that’s what Helen decided. A love heart carved out of a piece of ancient and mystical wood and painted an oily red. But not just one kind of red; all the reds. Helen put her hands on her chest and waited for The Feeling to come. She decided to hear music in her head. Probably a violin and a piano. Helen pretended to look into the distance and be in love. She imagined a black dress and dinner for two and kissing on a doorstep. Just those three things. Round and round and round with no beginning and no end. She didn’t even close her eyes. She wasn’t even looking out the window. Round and round and round. The dress, the dinner, the kissing, the dress, the dinner, the kissing, the kissing, the dinner, the dress, the dinner, the kissing, the kissing, the kissing, the love heart, the Mum dress Mum the dinner it's mum the kissing no the dress wait a minute the kissing go away the kissi-mum

Don’t stop. Please. Please carry on with the kissing.

Mum poked her head round Helen’s bedroom door. She looked like a pigeon dressed up as a person. Mum's supermarket uniform had a chocolate stain (or was it blood?) smeared down its front and was a bit too small for her oval, bread-filled body. Her claw-like feet  were stuffed into a pair of once smooth, once fluffy, blue slippers.

Mum said Helen’s name. But it didn’t sound like the word 'Helen'. It sounded like this: Hellinnn? Mum’s voice always sounded like an apology. But not an apology for a big thing, an apology for something pointless. Like walking past someone. Or getting on a bus.

Mum was poking her head round Helen’s bedroom door to remind Helen that it was time for Prayer Club and that Peter and his mum would be arriving soon to pick her up. Helen and Peter had known each other since Helen was four. She used to go to his house after school every day while Mum worked at the supermarket. Now that Helen was 13, she was allowed to come home on her own after school and make herself a snack. The snack was usually six digestive biscuits with peanut butter on top. The snack at Peter's house used to be a banana followed by some prayers.

Helen looked at Mum, whose eyes were darting around Helen’s bedroom as if she’d never seen a bedroom before and didn’t know how to start talking about it. She always did this. Helen knew what was coming next. Something about one of the posters on the wall: which pop group are they? Or something about an item of Helen’s clothing: what do they call those kinds of vests? And always the sound of an apology, stuck at the back of Mum's throat, like a tiny, dusty crucifix swinging in a doorway.

Peter and his mum were in the car outside. They were both wearing cardigans and they both had the same hair. Peter's smell smacked Helen in the face as soon as she opened the passenger door. This always happened, she was used to Peter's smell. It was like a mixture of sugar and coca cola and shampoo and furniture polish. Nobody spoke as Helen got in the car. She never knew what to do with her hands so she folded her arms and thought about the love heart.

Neither Helen nor Peter were allowed to sit in the front of the car because of what had happened to Anthony, Peter's brother. There never seemed to be enough room in the back for Helen and Peter not to touch bodies a tiny bit. Peter swept his hair from his face and looked at Helen. She didn't look back at him but she could feel his eyes on her cheek. It felt like he was looking right inside her face, right into the bones of her skull. Helen's cheek got hot. Her brain was saying the same word over and over again: bunk. Bunk, bunk, bunk, bunk, bunk. She tried to send the word to Peter. She even tried to  cough it out, like code.

Peter's mum asked Helen how her Mum's depression was. Helen said she didn't really know. Helen’s knee was touching Peter’s thigh, which felt hard and competitive, like a cricket bat.

Peter was a couple of years older than Helen. They went to the same school but they never spoke to each other there. Not even when Helen used to go to his house every day to wait for Mum to finish work. Peter’s house. Anthony's house. Anthony's room. Peter’s room. Peter’s bed. Peter’s bunk bed. The top one.

Helen stared straight ahead, towards the passenger seat in the front of the car. Anthony’s seat. She wanted to say his name out loud. She had a silly thought that if she did, he might suddenly be there. He might just appear in the car and look behind him and see Helen. He might reach his arm around the back of the chair and his hand might find hers and hold it. Really tight. Maybe too tight. But she wouldn’t mind because she would know that he meant it. Helen missed Anthony. She missed him in a way that meant thinking about him was a dangerous thing to do; like it might make her go blind. Nobody knew how much she missed him. Maybe not even God. Hopefully not even God.

Nobody ever talked about Anthony. Nobody even really talked about him at the funeral. The priest said some prayers and the room was silent and the priest said some prayers and the room was silent and the priest said some prayers and the coffin was taken outside and the room was silent. That day, most of Anthony's family had spent the whole day smiling exactly the same smile. Like they had all been taught how to do  it by the same person. It was a smile that Helen would never forget. It was huge. And weird. And frightening. It had sometimes looked like their smiles had even had their own smiles. Even the backs of their heads had seemed to be smiling. She remembered seeing Peter that day. He hadn't spent the whole day smiling. She'd walked into a side room at the church and had seen Peter, kneeling in a circle with some men. Some of them were crying and some of them had their eyes closed and they were all praying, all together in a circle on their knees and Peter had looked up at Helen and she was sure that when he'd seen her, he'd looked like he was about to laugh. She was sure of it.

That was one year ago. Helen looked out the window, at the rows of houses they were cruising past. The glassy, early evening light made the houses seem less real than they were; as if she was looking at a photograph of some houses; as if she could gather the entire row up in one sweeping movement and, with a clenched fist, screw them up in a tight, glossy ball and chuck them into the road to be driven over and completely destroyed.

One year. She tried to make a mental list of all the things that had happened in that time:

Got some new trainers
Been moved down a set in maths
Nearly set the house on fire by mistake
Been to the new cinema in town
The thing with the love heart
Nearly stopped believing in God
Periods started
Got fatter
Killed mum

Not really. That had been an in-joke between Helen and Anthony. She could almost hear him laugh. But she was starting to forget how his laugh really sounded which she hated herself for. Anthony’s laugh was more of a sigh than a laugh. It was small and awkward and quiet. It didn’t come out of his mouth very much. Wait. There. There. There it was. Do it again. Do it again, Anthony.


Do it again Anthony


Go on

No, it feels weird

It doesn’t look weird, it looks good

Shut up, Hellinnn

It does. It looks really good

No it doesn’t. It looks fucking gay

They were practising walking. More specifically, Anthony was practising walking. More specifically, Anthony was practising how to walk up to Robert from Year 9. The reason for this was that Anthony was absolutely, totally and utterly, can’t eat or sleep, fucked-in-the-head, wanking every day, in love with Robert from Year 9 and Robert in Year 9 needed to know about it because Anthony and Robert from Year 9 were one hundred percent, no doubt about it, nothing else matters, ‘til death do us part, it’s so fucking obvious, perfect for each other. So, Anthony had to practise how to walk up to him because whenever Anthony saw Robert from Year 9 at school, he forgot how to walk.

Do it again. Anthony. Do it again

Fucking hell

It looks really good. I promise

What if he doesn't even notice me?

But he obviously really fancies you too

Shh! Peter will fucking hear you, or my mum

Just do the walk again

Fucking hell

Just do the walk one more time. Please! I'll do anything you tell me if you do it one more time

Like what? Say 'cunt' at Prayer Club?

No! Like kill my mum

Fucking hell, I love him so fucking fucking much. I just love him so fucking fucking fucking much

Helen swallowed too loudly. She watched, as Anthony turned to face his bedroom wall, preparing himself for another practise walk. With his back to Helen, Anthony covered his face with his hands. Helen watched, as his t-shirt rode up slightly, exposing the smooth, milky skin on the small of his long back. Helen watched as the nape of Anthony’s slender, blood-filled neck bent down, which sent his head towards his chest, to his beating heart. And she listened as Anthony breathed, slowly and steadily, self-consciously readying himself for his next performance.

Fucking hell, I love him so fucking fucking much. I just love him so fucking fucking fucking much

Some girls were looking at Helen at lunch. People never looked at Helen at lunch. Helen looked back at them from time to time but mainly she just carried on eating her cheese and crisps sandwich.

It was Josie who got up and from her seat and started walking towards Helen. She was carrying a piece of paper. The others were watching.


Erm, hi

Is that cheese and crisps?


Josie looked behind her at her friends who, by now, had collapsed onto each other in a fit of delirious laughter.

You're Helen, yeah?

Erm . . .

Is this yours?


This letter

What is it?

It came out of your bag in the corridor

What is it?

We thought we should give it back to you before anyone saw it

What is it?

Do you properly believe in God then?


How come you’re not eating lunch with Anthony?

Erm, he’s got a trumpet lesson. Why?

A sudden squeal of delight or terror or both at the same time shot out of Josie’s mouth and her arms flew up into the air as she was caught off guard by a Year 10 boy. He’d come out of nowhere to do some flirting. He jabbed Josie in the ribs a couple of times and said something about how he could feel her bra under her shirt. He snatched the piece of paper from Josie’s hand, quick and tall and determined. The Year 10 boy unfolded the paper and, as he did this, Helen realised what was about to happen. She realised it very quickly and she felt the realisation in her body before she thought it in her mind. She looked up at the boy who suddenly seemed taller than a building. He was reading the words on the paper while he dodged Josie’s grabbing hands. There was a look of amused concentration on his face. After some time, he said, fucking hell mate, this is fucked up!

And after some more time, five small words came out of Helen’s mouth:

Can I have it please?

It happened on the motorway. All the papers and all the news bulletins on the TV kept saying the same thing: it’s a miracle that nobody else was hurt. He’d just opened the door. He’d opened the door and got out. Getting out of a car is a very simple thing to do; like walking down some stairs, or turning the page of a book, or saying sorry. But sometimes, things are a bit more complicated in certain situations. Getting out of a car is much more complicated when the car is travelling at 80 miles an hour down the middle lane of a motorway. Walking down some stairs is much more complicated when it’s pitch black and you’re in a strange house. Turning the page of a book is much more complicated when you’re terrified about what’s going to happen next. Saying sorry is much more complicated when you really, really, really mean it.

Helen found out at school. There was a special assembly to tell everyone. Some of the girls started crying immediately and rested their heads on each other’s shoulders. Some people sort of sniggered. Some of the teachers started praying, silently. Helen didn’t do any of these things. All that happened to her was that her ears stopped working and her heart started breaking. The inside of her body slowly become a disgusting, thick milkshake of guts and bile and shit. She looked directly ahead of her, at the back of a head, trying not to think about being sick. She wasn’t really sure if she was breathing and she didn’t know where her arms or legs were. People started moving towards the door, slowly, sombrely. The back of the head’s face turned towards Helen and Robert’s eyes looked directly, but utterly blankly into hers.


Dear God

It’s Helen. You need to help me because something really bad has happened. I told Peter about Anthony and I think that Peter’s going to tell his parents and I don’t know what to do. I didn’t mean to do it, I promise. Peter made me tell him. I was at their house yesterday but Anthony wasn’t there because he was doing something after school and I was in the lounge and Peter came in and said  he needed me to help him with something in his room so I went in his room. And then we were in his room and Peter was just looking at me. Kind of watching me. And then Peter said ‘sit on the bed’ so I did. And then he said, ‘not the bottom bunk, the top bunk’ so I had to climb up to the top bunk with him watching. And then he got up onto the top bunk too and sat next to me and I asked him what is was he needed help with and he said, ‘this’. And then he put his fingers up to his mouth in a V shape and stuck his tongue out between them and after he’d done that he said, ‘what does that remind you of?’ And I didn’t know what to say. And then he said, ‘do you think if I did that to Anthony it would remind him of anything?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know’ and Peter said, ‘I bet Anthony’s seen yours, hasn’t he?’ And then I didn’t say anything. But Peter wouldn’t shut up. And he kept asking me. He kept saying ‘Anthony’s seen yours, hasn’t he?’ He just kept saying it. Every time I tried to say no or tried to say anything else, Peter would just keep saying the same thing about Anthony seeing mine. And then he started calling me a liar, even though I’d hardly said anything. He just stared straight ahead of him and kept saying the word ‘liar’ over and over again and I didn’t know what to do or say and I just wanted to get off the bed and go back into the lounge. And then he said, ‘I know he’s seen yours. And I know the reason he’s seen it. It’s because he wants one of his own.’ And then he started laughing at me because I’d started to cry a bit and I didn’t know what to do. And Peter kept laughing at me and then he said ‘What are you crying for? You shouldn’t cry about it. My parents asked me to talk to you because they’ve been worried about his behaviour and they wanted me to ask you some questions.’ I don’t think I believed him but I didn’t really know because it was all happening really quickly. But then Peter said, ‘I know that Anthony’s seen your thing. And I know it’s because he wants one of his own. And the reason I want your help is because I think I want one as well. So I need to have a look at yours too’. And then he kind of got on top of me and he was sitting on my skirt and just looking at me and I didn’t know what to say and then he pulled my skirt up from where he was sitting on it and he looked at my knickers and he said ‘truth or dare’ and then he was just staring at me. And he said ‘truth or dare’ again. And he didn’t stop saying it until I said ‘truth’. Because I really really didn’t want to say dare. And then he said, ‘You have to tell the truth though. I’ll know if you’re lying. I’m really good at detecting liars, my dad taught me how to do it from the police and if you lie, I’m going to have to do a dare and I’ve already decided what the dare is and it’s really bad. You’ll hate it. It’ll probably hurt. And the worst thing about it is that you won’t be able to tell anyone about it because, even if you do, nobody will believe you because you’re just a stupid, fat bitch. Are you going to tell me the truth?’ I just didn’t know what to do because I was really scared and he was just staring at me and my skirt was up to my waist and I sort of froze and nodded and he said, ‘Is my brother a homo?’ I didn’t say anything for a bit and then he asked me again and I still didn’t say anything and then he put his hand on my knickers and I was so scared that he was going to look inside them and do something really bad. I just knew he was going to look inside and then he said, ‘shall I count to three?’

And then I just said, ‘yes’.