Gemma, still in school uniform, trying to do her homework for once, sits at the dining room table scratching sums in the varnish: this plus that minus the other equals whatever. Her nose touches the paper, the pencil’s point breaks. Her long hair flops forwards over her face, hiding the world from her, the world out there where her dad and his Kath are having a right barney, proper screaming each other’s eyes out.
Fucking lovely time they’ll be having tonight, the way they’re at it. Each other’s throats. Kath in a slutty little dress she’s too old for, wasted on her. Gemma’s dad’s suit all crisscrossed with creases. Off to a dinner party his boss is throwing. Gemma can see it: everyone fake-smiling through how much they hate one another, every sucky-up word actually all two-faced and built of sneaky sarcasm, the lot of them getting drunk just to stop their faces cracking. White-knuckle grips on the cutlery, red wine spilled like blood on the tablecloth. They’ll come home miserabler than ever—divorce soon, fingers crossed. Yeah, right. Like Gemma ever gets so lucky.
They’re off out, Gemma’s dad and his Kath, while she meanwhile, the only one in this so-called family who’s actually got a life, gets stuck at home on a Friday night. Babysitting Alfie, her little bastard half-brother, Kath’s kid, midget ball of fluff sitting cross-legged now in his jimjams and floppy slippers, in the front room transfixed by one of his old DVDs, seen it a million times, his snotty nose almost touching the telly’s dusty screen. His parents’ fighting floats far above his head, not even touching him … or maybe he’s storing it all up for his therapist when he’s grown—yeah, that’d be just like what Kath’d do to her kids, to Gemma too if she’d let her, though Gemma’s not not not Kath’s kid.
Beaten down at last, going into silent sulk mode, Gemma’s dad stomps out to the car. To sit waiting, forehead pressed to the wheel, pretending there’s a hose running from the exhaust, helping him out of here. Kath, one last bit of rage to vent before she goes all girlishly simpering and flirty at the party—Gemma’s seen it, it’s dead embarrassing—grabs something to throw. There’s a little explosion against the wall, Gemma flinches behind her veil of hair, bits of cheap china and wet flowers getting on her schoolbooks—not that it can make her answers any more wrong.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ Gemma mutters.
‘You,’ says Kath. ‘I haven’t time now for you. You better just shut up and mind your brother.’
He’s not my brother, Gemma could’ve yelled back, but it’s one of those lines she’s getting bored of yelling. She says nothing, only pulls faces that Kath can’t see.
‘And clean up that mess.’
Kath screws in her last earring, checks her face in the mirror—but it’s the only face she’s got—and then the front door slams behind her at last, the car outside grunting to life and grinding away—and they’re gone. Fucking lovely evening they’re about to have, all right.
The house is all-at-once quiet, except for Alfie’s dim cartoon noises drifting through from the other room. Gemma flicks her head up, blows her hair from her face. She uncurls her arm from around her exercise book, flattens a flower’s head in its pages. Shuts her eyes.
What she needs right now is a good excuse to go out and leave little Alfie all on his own for the evening—let him fend for himself, the little shit—and that excuse, it’s only obvious, has got to be hating Kath, hating Kath and anything that’s Kath’s. Which is easy. Lots of ways in her head for Gemma to do that. Like that time when her friend Callum used his moped’s back wheel on the roundabout in the park one night to get it spinning fast fast fast, farting noxious gas, Gemma and this other girl spinning and spinning and spinning-spinning-spinning and then sent laughing screaming flying off it, the other girl bouncing and rolling across grass, halfway down the field to a comfortable landing, while Gemma only had to go and crack her head open on the corner of the monkey bars, didn’t she? Plus she’d cut her hand on some broken glass, picking herself up because no one else would. And then what’d Kath been like later, when she and Gemma’s dad turned up at A & E, when Gemma was sat there waiting, pressing a wad of gauzy bandage-stuff to her split skull, finally sobering up, and it was all starting to really hurt?
‘So how much brain leaked out exactly?’ is what Kath’d said, her eyes dribbling spoilt mascara like a spider’s venom. ‘Can’t have been much, or you’d have got none left. Dragging your dad and me all the way here, this time of night. You want to take a long look at yourself, you do. Not that it’d do any good. I can tell already that this hasn’t knocked a bit of sense into you. Fifteen year old and already it’s too late for you. Can’t count to ten unless it’s in vodkas. You selfish cow. Look at you whining.’
Well, it’s not like Gemma can actually remember much of that evening, definitely not anyone’s exact words, but she’s sure Kath must’ve said some really horrible things to her, that’s just what Kath’s like. Or she’d at least have been thinking them, you can tell from her eyes. So it’s not as if it matters if some of what Gemma mutters to herself now is borrowed from other occasions, or totally made up. It isn’t like there’s not plenty more screaming matches in Gemma’s head to pick from. Her dad sitting silently by, like always, staring at his feet. Counting the loops of his shoelaces.
‘You made me like this,’ Gemma says now to the empty room. ‘You, Kath. All your fault. You, like, brought me up. If my real mum’d been my mum and not you, she’d have done a proper job, not like you. She’d have taught me right, and I’d have been okay. But it was you. And so this now, this is all your fault as well. It’s your fault too. Whatever happens to Alfie.’
And that’s it, an easy bit of magic done, and other stuff, responsibilities or whatever, are cast aside: fuck Kath, Gemma can be off now. Little Alfie’s on his own.
Gemma flings herself up from her chair, knocking it over backwards. It topples slowly, like one of the trigonometry problems she’s not got round to trying. She dashes upstairs, barely touching the steps, peeling off her ugly mauve-and-grey school uniform as she goes, into her bedroom and there into some proper clothes—short denim skirt, boots, her new top—so fast the chair’s still angling its way towards the floor as she flies back downstairs and out of the house, detouring only a fraction of a moment to nick a nearly full bottle of Kath’s special vodka, and then out she flows, set free, into the night, the front door slamming behind her, the door’s crash and the thud of the dining-room chair hitting the carpet both coinciding neatly with a scream in Alfie’s cartoon. Alfie screams, too, a brief high Aieeeee!, and doesn’t notice the house’s new emptiness beneath it. A page of a textbook lifts in the breeze of a vacuum closing, in Gemma’s deep goneness, and slowly settles again.
Little Alfie won’t realize he’s alone till his DVD ends and he comes out of his cartoon trance, in an hour or so’s time, when probably a rumble in the selfish little bastard’s tummy will send him looking for someone to feed him. But there’ll be nobody there. He’ll look in every room, going up on tiptoes to reach the light switches, finding no one. In his mummy and daddy’s bedroom, a whiff of his mummy’s perfume lingers—makes him pull a face. It’s an evening-out smell, an Alfie-getting-left-behind smell. In his pyjamas and slippers, past his bedtime, he drags his favourite stuffed toy about with him by the tail, its head bumping on the floor. All the house lit up and empty. It’s a pink dinosaur with long eyelashes, a girlish toy he’d wanted ’cause he’s weird. All alone, Alfie won’t cry. He’s three years old, now … or is he turned four? Gemma forgets. This isn’t the kind of thing that upsets him. He’s odd like that.
Maybe he’ll have brains enough to feed himself. There’s a footstool in the living room that’d be the easiest thing to reach things with—so yeah, he dumps his pink stegosaurus, drags the stool bumpily over the carpet … only hang on, it’s got a lamp on it, Gemma remembers, Kath uses it as a table to keep her vodka-tonics handy, so when the wire reaches its limit the lamp falls off and breaks on the floor with a hard snap of glass and a little blue flash. Alfie stands there and cries a minute … but there’s no one else around so what’s the point? He smears his teary face with his sleeve and starts dragging the stool again. Now in the kitchen he can reach where he’s not meant to: he’ll stuff chocolate biscuits in his gob, first choice—he’s chubby now and he’ll be tubbier still when he’s older, Gemma reckons (or that’s what she tells Kath, anyway)—chocolate dipped in jam, milk poured more down his front than his throat, the plastic bottle left glugging the rest onto the kitchen floor. He’ll feed his dinosaur, too, probably, the little idiot, both their faces getting all jammy and chocolaty. Ice cream for afters. Eyes bigger than his tummy, or his brain—soon he’ll be full, visibly beach-ball-rounded under his jimjams top.
That sorted, he looks about himself again. Where is everybody? Where’s his mummy and daddy and beautiful big sister? All gone. He’ll have to find them, that’s all. Gemma’s big-school stuff is abandoned on the dining-room table, gone cold now. He clambers up and kneels on a chair, opens the exercise book, thinks he might draw something for Gemma, a picture of him and her together, maybe, the sun smiling down on them. He finds the head of a flower squashed between the pages, puts it automatically into his mouth. It tastes of red. He puts it carefully back where he found it.
There’s only one place left to look—the rest of the world. He fetches that footstool again, drags it into the hall, stands on it to unlatch the front door, letting in a quick gust of wind that almost pushes him over. He goes back for his dinosaur—little Alfie’s only real friend, probably, who’s not got a name unless it’s one he’s picked for himself and kept quiet about. They go outside, and Alfie carefully tugs the door shut behind them. The latch clunks. It’s raining, lightly but endlessly, and very dark.
Alfie crosses the little front garden—patchy grass turning to mud, empty flowerbeds already mud—and sets off down the road, choosing a direction either randomly or for reasons you couldn’t ever work out no matter what you asked him. He steers himself round the edges of puddles but still gets his fluffy-bunny slippers all wet, his pyjama bottoms splashed to the knee, the rest of him speckled with spots of rain that grow and darken, gathering together till the soaked fabric clings to his skin, his bones showing through.
He wanders the endless twisty streets for ages—for ages and ages, it feels like. He passes the playground he plays at sometimes during the day—his mummy Kath on a park bench flirting with that single dad, laughing at his jokes, touching his sleeve—but it’s a different place at night, empty and still, kind of scary. Maybe he doesn’t even recognise it.
Soon he’s got no idea where he is any more, if he ever did. There’s just houses, rows of houses all the same, their windows dark but watching. The streetlamps’ light fractures and wobbles on the road’s oily skin. He passes a bunch of older kids—his sister’s age, maybe, though she’s not with them—but they’ll not be any help. Hanging out in a bus shelter, they have bottles of stuff, they’re smoking things. The boys more frightening than the girls, the girls bad enough. They laugh loudly, shout bad words at one another. They don’t notice little lost Alfie on the other side of the road, wouldn’t give a toss if they did. He keeps going, his face still all focused-looking and purposeful—who’s he trying to fool?—as if he knows exactly where he’s going. Sometimes a car passes, its headlights flashing over him; one actually slows down to have a look, before moving on. Must think he’s a ghost, some kid run over years ago that can’t now escape the spot where it died.
Eventually he comes to the mouth of this long narrow alley that cuts between houses and then into some woods, which secretly his big sister Gemma finds a bit spooky even in the daytime—not that it ever really is daytime in there, what with those big trees looming, stealing all the light and casting everything into gloom, reaching down their weird misshapen fingers. Lucky for him Alfie’s not got the imagination for lurking monsters or witches’ gingerbread-traps, trolls under bridges and stuff like that—he’s too thick for imagination, is what Gemma reckons—and so he plunges into the darkness unbothered by thoughts of what might be waiting for him. You can just tell these woods are haunted, though in the night you can’t see just how twisted and evil the trees are, warps and knots in the bark like messed-up eyes, howling faces. Can’t Alfie feel their hate all over his skin? He just walks calmly on, like it’s all totally normal. But there’s dim shapes moving amid the woods, flickering between trees. Soft rustlings of leaves as things pace the undergrowth alongside him, biding their time. Tiny glittering points of light on eyes or teeth… Alfie’s little gay stuffed dinosaur won’t be much help fighting off the real monsters that’re after drinking his blood and grinding his bones. He must be able to feel them getting closer, and closer, in the darkness of the path behind him—hot foetid breath wafting near, footsteps getting louder, clawed hands reaching for him, raising the tiny hairs at the nape of his neck—so how come he doesn’t hurry his pace even a bit? At any moment they could so easily…
But then all at once they’re gone, he’s safe, there’s the sound of civilisation again. Cars. The path and the woods have come to an end, and a narrow footbridge rises in front of Alfie high over a motorway. Gemma’s been here, with her mates, leaning over spitting at cars as they pass below. Alfie can’t go back through the scary woods—even if he’s not actually found them scary, freak that he is—he has to press on, so he struggles his way up the steps, using one hand to climb three-legged, the other not forgetting his not-quite-extinct-yet dinosaur pal. No monsters up here, but wind made of water whips at his hair and face, all warmth gone from his flesh. He can feel the bridge sway beneath him, on the edge of cracking.
He sees the cars coming, their lights reflected blindingly on the wet motorway surface. He watches as they roar right under him: if he were at the road’s level they’d be running him down. But he’s far out of their reach, high up here. A car overtakes a lorry as he’s directly between them—if he’d been down there they’d both have missed him, just barely, one screaming by on either side, and he laughs at it, his imagined escape. He has to wait and step back, dart forwards and dodge fast, trying to stay alive. He laughs at his silly game. Halfway across he’s alive and untouched—not counting the smack of the odd wing mirror or two—but then a gust of wind hits him hard and sends him staggering backwards, arms windmilling, across the width of the bridge. He bangs into the railings on the other side, slides down gripping them like prison bars. If he’d let go of his dinosaur then it would’ve been lost, blasted miles away in seconds. His hair, normally so sticky-up in all directions, is plastered down over his face. He must’ve hurt himself as he fell—his skin must hurt already, simply from the cold—but he doesn’t cry. Gemma wouldn’t be so brave, she knows. On his knees, Alfie sticks his head between the bars, looks down at the tops of cars zipping by beneath him. As they rush away their evil red eyes glare gleefully back at him, at his little dead body. If he’d really been down there he’d really be dead. All those cars and lorries would’ve hit him, monsters gobbling him up. But he pulls himself to his feet again, because no one else will, and drags himself over the bridge and across the road, holding tight to the railings, climbing horizontally. Down the steps at the other side, still clutching his poor terrified baby dinosaur. At the foot there’s another dark, fairy-tale pathway—but another is never so scary as the first. After a bit, Alfie emerges safely into a street’s light once more. Safely? Kind of not, really. He’s still just as lost as anyone’s ever been. There’s no way he’ll be able get himself home again, even if he’d not locked himself out.
His pyjama top is so wet you can count his ribs where it clings to him. His bunny slippers are sodden and unrecognisable, like putrid corpses of baby rabbits, their lifeless ears drooping and dragging in the dirt. His teeth chatter in little musical patterns, short waves of a tiny tapping and then brief stillness. The cartoon face on his front, not so happy any more despite its frozen smile, weeps rainwater. No one could tell what’s going on in his head, if there’s anything at all. And then, just as he’s passing a pub, a man steps out in front of him, come into the weather for a smoke, and Alfie stops.
There’s an awning for smokers round the back—you can hear their faint chatter from here—but this guy prefers his solitude, even if it means getting wet. He’s wearing a faded-logo baseball cap, its brim catches pattering raindrops. He lights a cigarette, and on his first exhale, one hand kneading a shoulder, he spies Alfie standing there, gazing up at him. He looks at the boy, takes another deep suck on the fag, flicks it into the flowing gutter. He looks all around to see nobody’s watching, then crouches before Alfie, one forearm across a knee, smiling in a way that maybe he thinks is friendly. His eyes glitter greedily. His breath smells funny. He still has his lighter out: his thumb, nervous or excited, flicks a flame in and out of existence. He licks his lips, gulps before speaking.
‘Hello, there,’ he says. His voice is hoarse; he controls it and tries again. ‘Hello. Are you all on your own?’ He raises himself a little, looks up and down the street again, over his shoulder at the pub’s windows to be sure no one can see. ‘Are you lost, little boy? Listen, my car is just round the corner, if you come with me I’ll take care of you, get you home safely, get you dry and warmed up.’ The sheen on his forehead is a sudden sweat, not rainwater. ‘What’s your name? Here, take my hand…’ he says, and little Alfie is reaching solemnly up to accept it—
‘Get the fuck away from him!’
—when a girl’s voice arrives, shouting, and it’s Gemma come running, belting across the road out of nowhere. The man knelt before Alfie freezes for a startled second, then closes himself up again, hunches his shoulders and melts back into the pub’s brickwork. The pale grey of his breath hangs in the rain ghostly a moment and then is gone.
Gemma grabs her brother and shakes him. His head flops on his neck, loosely forwards and backwards—a little more and it’ll fall off. So Gemma stops, and finds his eyes instead. She goes, ‘What do you think you’re playing at, wandering off like that? And talking to him? I mean, I know your head’s not all grown yet, your brain’s not like solidified or whatever, but just look at him—you could tell just from his face that he must be on that government sex-pervert’s list, like probably in the top fucking ten. I mean, shit—you scared me, you did.’
Alfie’s eyes are all fat as if swollen with rainwater. Gemma’s fingers pinch hard into his arms, but he doesn’t make a noise. She makes herself calm down, gulping her anger and fright down into the vodka and various colours that’re swilling inside her—might as well not’ve bothered, though, for all the drunk she feels. God. The little freak’d frightened her.
Alfie’s crying silently … no he’s not, it’s just the rain on his face, dripping from his hair. He watches Gemma blankly, as if he weren’t really seeing her. Her fingers are still dug into his shoulders. She could pinch really hard and make him squeal. But she lets go.
‘Look, so okay, sorry,’ says Gemma. ‘Shouldn’t have shouted at you. It’s not your fault you’re a special-needs weirdo. It’s not your fault you’ve only got a teaspoonful of brains. It’s not your fault you’re Kath’s kid, is it?’
She looks at him as if for an answer, like he might shake his head in silent agreement—no, not his fault—but he just watches her, his eyes still all big and round and wobbly-wet.
‘Knock it off with the eyes,’ Gemma says. ‘Come on, let’s go.’
She takes his hand, his chubby little hand, limp and boneless in hers, cold and wet as mud—little squeezable fingers, she could just make them pop if she wanted. But best not. And actually, she kind of feels like hugging him for once … if he weren’t so wet, maybe. She looks at him. Guess not.
Gemma takes her brother home. It’s only a five-minute walk. The rain’s stopped, slackened off at least, just as Gemma’d found Alfie—as if she’d wished it gone, or one of them had. But yeah, like that ever works. There’s no need to retrace Alfie’s stupid wanderings, those dark paths and scary monsters he’ll be seeing again someday soon. He’ll think he dreamt them, when he grows up, all those monsters with all those teeth—Gemma won’t tell him that she sees them too.
Nothing frightening happens on the way home. Alfie’s left all the lights on, the opened curtains pouring light onto their bit of front grass. Gemma blinks up at the house ablaze. Alfie’s favourite DVD’s playing itself out all over again, unwatched. The kitchen’s just the incredible mess Gemma’d imagined, which she’ll clean up only a bit, thirty seconds’ work before she gets bored and then the rest is tomorrow’s problem. It’s weird how she’d known, though—just known. That Alfie was lost. ’Cause swear to God it’d just popped into her head—Alfie, like that, a tiny voice’s whisper—as if she were psychic or something. She’d had to jump and run—leaving her friends thinking she’s mad, that’s if they don’t already, leaving this cute lad she really likes and who might’ve been about to kiss her wondering was it something he’d said?—and she’d headed straight homewards and found Alfie on the way, got him back off that sweaty-faced paedo. Lucky he’d not wandered even farther.
Gemma goes around putting the house back into darkness. Bulbs popping in electric flashes as she flicks the switches, stains of light lingering on her retinas. She runs Alfie a quick, hot bath, dunks him under the bubbles; warmth bleeds back into his blood. She towels him dry, roughly fluffing up his hair. She folds his limbs into clean pyjamas, pours a glass of microwaved milk down his neck, shoves him into bed. She sits his little pink dinosaur on the radiator to dry. Not that she knows why she’s bothering, why she even cares. She doesn’t care, should’ve let him get lost. Would’ve been worth it, just for the look on Kath’s face. God, imagine if she’d got home to find him gone! Kath would properly actually have murdered her this time, like for real, and Gemma’s dad wouldn’t have done a thing to stop it. But it’d been like there was this little psychic thread that’d tugged in her mind, for all that she’d tried, out with her mates, to forget Alfie’s existence. Couldn’t ignore it. And if Gemma’s got, like, telepathic powers or whatever, well she didn’t get them off Kath, whose blood’s not Gemma’s thank God, and not off her dad either, who doesn’t know his own thoughts never mind anyone else’s. So they must’ve come from her real mum, who’d died when Gemma was little leaving just a few sweet swirly images that Gemma can’t tell for sure are real memories and not just dreams. There’s nowhere else.
Gemma sits on Alfie’s bed in the dark, her hand on his, a few bones grown back into it by now. A bedtime story’s beyond her but a kiss on his forehead she can just about do. Warm dry clean skin. She listens to him breathing, watches his eyes’ faint glow dimming as his lids fall. She checks the time on her phone: Alfie’s face is momentarily illuminated by the pale light, smiling as he sees his sister’s face also bluishly lit, even if it looks like his sister’s ghost, a disembodied head floating above him in the dark. It’s still pretty early, the party won’t have died out yet. Gemma darkens her phone, and her face vanishes again.
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Just fucking stay where you’re put this time, okay?’
Does he nod in the dark? She leans again and kisses his hair, and through her lips feels faint whispers of dream rising already in his head. She tiptoes out, softly clicks shut the bedroom door. Memories so vague she can’t even make herself cry with them, so what use are they? She flows downstairs, out into the night, trying once more. The rain’s got going again, after all. Doesn’t matter. Soon she’ll be back in the heat and noise of the party. Lose her mind in that. That lad whose name she didn’t catch will still be there, better not have got off with some other girl. It’s still dead early. Anyway, she likes the cold prickle of rainwater on her skin. She lifts her face into it, closing her eyes as she walks. It’s kind of nice. Soon she’ll be back partying. Things will be different this time. This time she’ll stay. Everything will be different soon.
© Barney Walsh
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Barney’s interview]