Authors: Rachel Ward
The wagon’s rolling forward now, and the butterflies in my stomach are more like bats, their wings knocking against the inside of my belly, their sharp little claws tearing it.
We’re moving out of the yard now, easing between the buildings and heading for the driveway.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone running past the truck. So quick. A pale white body, almost naked, running toward the front of the truck.
The driver brakes and my head slams into the back of the cab. My ears are filled with the horn blaring a long continuous note, and the squealing protest as the discs grind against the wheel rims. The cab rocks, pushing my weight onto my legs and back again. The door’s open now and the driver’s feet thud onto the concrete as he jumps down from the cab. People are running from the yard behind us.
“Jesus! Jesus, help me!” The driver’s shouting at the top of his voice. A prayer screamed into the morning air.
“What happened? What is it?” Voices from behind.
“I think I went over something.”
Men clatter past my hiding place. I freeze. There’s nowhere to go, I’ve just got to sit tight.
“I can’t look! Oh Jesus. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Calm down, Jimbo. Calm down.”
“I felt something, thought I saw something right at the last minute.”
“I dunno. A dog or a fox or …”
“There’s nothing under the cab. Stay there, mate, stay there, we’ll look farther down.”
I hold my breath and close my eyes. And I’m three years old, playing hide-and-seek. If I can’t see, maybe I won’t be seen. Raindrops land on my face, my hands.
Their sounds get nearer; feet scuffing on the ground, soft grunts as they bend down to look under.
Game’s up, little brother. You lose.
So close now. I’m going to have to leg it. I open my eyes. To my left someone’s back is level with me, horizontal as he peers under the wheels. Then a voice to my right: “Oi! What the … ? Gotcha. It’s a boy.” I swivel around. There’s a bloke standing there, eyes nearly popping out of his head. He’s a big bugger and he’s reaching forward, about to collar me, so I go the other way. I jump to my feet and step out onto the other fella’s back, then leap off it onto the ground.
My stepping stone falls forward with a string of curses, and all the others are shouting at once.
“Here, stop him!”
“There he goes. Get him!”
There are half a dozen of them. I dodge the first couple. One of them grabs my coat, but I shrug it off and carry on running. Then someone tackles my legs and suddenly I’m down, face crunching into the concrete.
I’m surrounded by a circle of feet. Eventually someone hauls me upright. I look at the faces around me. There are six or seven men, all in overalls.
“What’s your name, son? What are you doing here?”
“Are you English? You speak English?”
They’re firing questions at me. Too many to answer. But I’m just waiting for a gap to appear in the crowd, for a chance to run away. One of the men looks at me long and hard. His face is almost as pale as Rob’s, his lips bloodless.
“Was it you? Were you mucking about, running in front of my truck?”
I don’t answer.
“Here.” Someone holds my coat out toward me. “Put this back on.”
“Thanks,” I say, and the men around me visibly relax.
“You’re English, then, son. You from around here?”
Jimbo hasn’t moved a muscle. He’s still staring.
“Wait a minute, I know you. You’re the one in the paper. The one whose brother …”
He doesn’t need to finish his sentence — they all know. An uneasy silence settles on the group.
No one’s holding on to me anymore.
I make a break for it, pushing through between Jimbo and his neighbor. I catch his shoulder as I go past, and there’s no resistance. The impact turns him where he stands, a limp puppet whose strings have been cut, but his mates are quicker. Strong hands hold me back and I know I’m not going anywhere.
“Don’t worry, son,” one of them says. “You don’t need to run. You’re not in trouble. We’ll see you get home now, safe and sound.”
Behind him, unseen by anyone else now, there’s a shadow, a pale shape watching the drama play out. He puts one hand to his face, and then draws a figure 1 in the air.
One–nil to Rob.
e and Neisha are sitting next to each other on the kiddie swings in the playground at the rec, both moving gently backward and forward, trailing our feet on the soft ground beneath us.
“I thought … I thought you might’ve … you know.”
Neisha doesn’t want to meet my eye.
“Offed myself?” I say.
A quick flick up and then down again.
“Yeah. Your mum read me your note over the phone at half past five this morning. She was going out of her mind.”
“I only meant to tell her not to look for me.”
“She thought it meant ‘Don’t look, ’cause I don’t want you finding the body.’ ”
Neisha rang soon after they brought me back. She wanted to see me, wouldn’t take no for an answer. Meanwhile I put up with a tongue-lashing from Mum and Auntie Debbie and then tears and then another telling-off. The tears were threatening
to spill out again when Neisha turned up, and suddenly I was caught between the sheer, pure joy of seeing her again and the massive sense of failure that I hadn’t managed to get away, to take Rob away from her. There’s something else, too. The burden of guilt — the sick weight of knowing that I goaded Rob into trying to kill her. It was all my fault.
Mum only agreed I could go out with Neisha if I stayed within sight of home. It’s not raining anymore, but every hollow and dip in the path and playing field is full of lying water, and there’s a sharp breeze ruffling the surface.
Bundled in her anorak, hood up, Neisha looks at me through her thick brown lashes and it makes me want to stop all this, to tear up the script in my head where I talk to her about visions and voices and tell her what a bad person I am. I want to tell her that running away was a big mistake and I want to be with her, hold her, kiss her. But there’s so much that she doesn’t know …
“Just running away.”
“And you weren’t even going to say good-bye?”
She’s hurt. I’m an idiot. Why didn’t I think how hurt she would be?
“I was going to ring you. It just seemed for the best. That you’d be better off without me.”
“How can you say that? I thought we … I thought you liked me.”
“I did. I do.”
“So what the fuck, Carl? I mean, what the fuck?”
I put my hand on her arm and she shrugs me off with a violence that takes me by surprise.
“I do, Neisha. Very much.”
“What do you mean?”
there. ‘I like you very much,
“I can’t tell you. I’m not who you think I am. It’s better if we don’t, if we … if we … stop.”
It tears me apart to say it, but the effect on her is electric.
“Stop? So that’s it, is it? Don’t you want to shag me first, like your brother?”
She’s stopped moving, grounded by her toes digging into the asphalt. Her fingers are gripping the chain so hard that the skin is stretched shiny over her knuckles.
“Neisha, I —”
“ ’Cause you’re just the same, aren’t you? You’re not really interested in me. You don’t really give a fuck.”
This is it. I can do it now, if I really want to. I can get her out of my life. I should. I must. To keep her safe.
“You’re right, Neisha. We
the same. Me and Rob. That’s why you should walk away. Because I’m no good for you. I never will be.”
But the words I thought would push her away have the opposite effect.
“You see?” she says. “You see how wrong you are? You saying that means that you
like him. You think you are,
but you aren’t.”
Her shoulders relax a little and there’s half a smile there.
“You silly, sweet thing. I know you. I know you better than you know yourself. You don’t need to run away.”
I know I shouldn’t, but I slip off the swing and stand in front of her. As I do so, the sun comes out, making all the wet surfaces around us sparkle. I can feel its warmth on the back of my neck. Neisha pulls me toward her. I stumble closer and she swings toward me, and now she’s wrapping her legs around me.
“Steady,” I say, but, too late, the swing shifts from underneath her and she grabs me with her arms and instinctively I hold her tight. She’s gripping me like a little monkey, and we’re about to topple over. Without thinking, I try to bounce her higher and get my hands under her behind. But I can’t get my balance and we’re going to go over.
“Put your feet down. You’ll have to put them down!” I yell. And she laughs and holds on even tighter.
“Neisha, put your feet down. I can’t hold you!”
Finally she unwinds and plonks her feet on the ground.
“You’re mental,” she says, checking me nervously to see if she’s caused offense. “In a good way,” she adds. “In a good, good way.”
She puts her head back and laughs. My eyes follow the line of her throat down into the dark V of her anorak. And she moves her hand to the back of my neck and she tilts her head just the right amount so our lips meet as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Oh, Neisha,” I breathe.
How can I keep away from this? From her?
“You won’t leave me, will you?”
Her vanilla words transfer themselves from her tongue to mine.
“No, no, ’course not. I’ll never leave you.”
We kiss for seconds or minutes or hours. Who knows how long? Some kids walk by and jeer at us, making lip-smacking, wellies-stuck-in-the-mud noises, but we keep our eyes closed and kiss and kiss until they’ve gone and we’re alone again.
At some point, we draw apart. Neisha’s face is blurry, like I’ve smudged her features with my mouth. We keep our arms around each other. I feel safe within this tight circle of her love. Safe and calm. The sun warms my neck and the world around us is silver and bright. The air carries the smell of chocolate from the factory and it mixes in my nostrils with Neisha’s familiar sweetness. Even though part of me knows that it’s wrong to be happy, I can’t stop myself. This is how I am right now and it feels good — so, so good.
Neisha leans her head on my shoulder.
“You know how you said you see him … Rob … ?” she says, and his name, hearing it spoken out loud, sends a dagger of ice between my ribs.
“Is he here now?”
Something about the way she asks makes me wonder whether she wants him to be here — to see this, us. I move so I can see her face.
“No, not now,” I say.
Her hand at my waist relaxes just a tiny bit. A little bit of tension that I didn’t even know was there has gone, and she blinks and smiles and kisses me, right next to my mouth.
“Good,” she says. “Maybe he’s gone.”
She disentangles one hand and lifts it up to stroke my hair. And I can’t help thinking,
There, there, the nasty boy’s gone.
And the voice in my head is his.
I shake my head violently and she holds her hand away, floating in midair.
“What?” she says.
“He’s not gone, Neisha,” I say. “He won’t go until … unless …”
“Why do you think ‘he’s’ here? What’s going to make ‘him’ go?”
Her tone of voice. The tilt of her head. She doesn’t believe me. She still thinks it’s all in my mind.
I put my hands on the top of her arms, squeezing, maybe squeezing too tight.
“I’m not making this up.”
She shifts in my grip, but I don’t let go.
“So how come you can see him and I can’t?” She turns her head one way and then the other, looking behind her, all around.
“He’s not here now, Neisha. And I don’t know why I can see him. I just can. I see him when
I’m wet, that’s all. The thing is … he’s so angry now, I think something’s changed. Somehow he’s getting stronger.”
“Before, he was just a voice, a shape in the rain, but now he seems to be able to use the water against me, the weather, even. The only thing that’s the same is that when I’m dry he disappears.”
“What does he look like? Just the same as … ?”
“He’s how he was when they … when they fished him out of the water.”
“So why’s he here?”
I let go of her and turn away.
“Don’t ask me,” I say.
“Carl, you’ve got to tell me.”
“Because of me, something to do with me?”
If I open my mouth now, I’m going get myself into trouble. I keep quiet, but it’s just as bad.
“It is, isn’t it?”
“No, ’course not,” I mumble.
I’ve still got my back to her. She darts around and ducks under so she’s peering up into my face.
“Don’t bullshit me, Carl. Don’t ever bullshit me. You’re rubbish at lying. What does he want?”
I twist away from her and start walking. She catches up and matches me, pace for pace.