My sleep was broken, but no more than usual. The cold had started to really leak in through the cracks in the window and seep through the mouldy walls. I made myself cups of tea to try and warm up. I hated winter.
I didn’t want a shower. My desire to be clean didn’t outweigh the shivering cold I felt. I boiled the kettle and mixed some warm water to wash with. When I had money I’d get a shower with hot water and spend a whole day in it. I smiled to myself, thinking of Beth’s shower. How nice must it be to get out of bed and just stand under a warm torrent of water. Thinking of Beth always made me smile.
The weather was still awful in the morning. My walk to school was plagued by the same biting wind. As was becoming usual I spent the day waiting for lunchtime. When it came I sat with Beth and listened to her talk about her day. When she paused I decided to air a question I’d be harbouring all week.
“Beth, I was wondering, after what the Commander said on Monday…” I was unsure how to continue. “If…”
She looked at me and let my unfinished sentence hang there.
“You want to join the Cadets?” She asked, after an infuriatingly long pause.
I nodded. She sighed, almost with relief.
“I was hoping you’d ask. I’ve been making your case. It’s unusual for someone to join at such a late age. Mostly you join at like eight to twelve. Nearly fifteen? They suggested you wait a year until your 16th birthday and join up properly.
“I know you want to be a pilot though, and for that you need to be an officer. You need a degree, so you can’t do that and…” She must have looked at my face because she stopped.
This ruined everything. Why didn’t they have that stupid careers thing when I was twelve if I had to start doing stuff then! What was the point in it now?
“Don’t worry though! I told dad. He talked to the commander, who must have really took a shine to you because he made a few calls. I’m hoping they can be persuaded to make an exception. That is if…”
I felt the feelings of hopelessness that had washed over me drain away, replaced by excitement.
“Of course! Thank you Beth.” She smiled at my reaction.
“It might take a while though. It’s all politics you know. That’s what dad says.” She said, looking a bit down. I didn’t mind if it took time. I’d never really had much to do with myself – everything seemed to cost money. The most exciting thing I used to do with my spare time was to go read in the library. That was the only thing I could do for free, other than just explore the streets.
If I was in the cadets, it would be something… I’d have something to talk about with Beth. Like Mike did.
I’d be just like everyone else, normal. I didn’t care how long it took.
* * *
The weekend came with a respite in the snow. The radio informed me that it would only be for a few days then the storm would return worse than it was. Mum awoke me with more of her shouting. Always shouting for me. When she isn’t asleep she shouts for more money, more drugs, for food or for me to come clean her.
She’d made a mess of the bed – I started to gather the sheets after she finally agreed to sit up on the stained mattress and let me strip the bed. The smell made me gag.
Another load of washing, I had to do it by hand in the shower. It wouldn’t be so bad if the water wasn’t so icy cold. After half an hour with your hands in it they feel like they would shatter if I touched anything warm ever again.
As I was bunching it up she started shouting again. I let my arms hang, watching her. Her face was drawn, cheeks and dark-ringed eyes sunken. The skin on her bony arms was papery and dry. She looked twice her age.
As I looked I noticed something in myself. She stirred almost no emotion in me. Throughout my life I had cycled through hate, despair, loathing or pity when my eyes fell on her.
It was like looking at a stranger, no – then I would feel nervous. An object. Inanimate. After all, she was most of the time. Living in her little chemical induced dream world.
She chose that over me many years ago – as long as I can remember.
A slap brought me back to reality. Stinging on my cheek where her nails had raked across my face.
Everything snapped back into place, I could almost feel the adrenaline running through my bloodstream, reaching my heart, fingers and legs.
Before I knew what had happened I had grabbed her wrist clumsily as she brought it in for another slap. What was I doing? I would get in trouble… I panicked, she hadn’t disciplined me for months. Her other arm darted out to pinch at the soft skin on my chest.
The pain hit me.
Involuntarily a whimper escaped my lips and I let go of her wrist like it was hot iron. She twisted my skin with her bony fingers and I let myself get dragged down. Kneeling. Level with her sitting on the bed.
“Don’t you ever touch me you little shit.” She hissed. “I’ve given you everything.”
In a little corner of my mind, a voice said to me: She’s given you nothing. Nothing but pain.
“A roof over your head.”
A roof that leaks, a roof that barely keeps the heat in.
“Food, money, clothes! You suck every penny way from me.”
Food? What food? Money? Clothes? Ha! I have to live off the charity of others.
“And this is how you repay me?”
I didn’t know which was me: that voice in my head with its mocking tone – it was a strong voice, one of defiance – or my reaction. I had let go, I had lowered my eyes. I had submitted to her.
I’d always had that voice but now it seemed stronger. I dared to drag my eyes up from my knees. It took all the defiance I had to raise them and look at her. My mother. I finally reached face.
Her eyes were full of disgust, hatred. As I looked at her the expression changed to one of anger. She spat in my face and threw me to the ground.
What had I done to deserve this?
I crawled out of the room, tasting salt and feeling the warm dripping of tears onto the back of my hands.
As a final gesture she shouted to me. “I wish I’d never taken you!”
When I was clear of the door I just lay and sobbed into my arms as quietly as I could manage.
Back to hate. The cycle continued.
* * *
Well, I wasn’t going to just lie here and feel sorry for myself. Other people had it worse than me. There was always someone worse off.
Maybe a month ago I would have pulled my blankets around myself and cried for a few days, just trying to sleep. Things had changed though. I had things to do. I pulled myself up to my hands and knees and studied the backs of my fingers, willing myself to sit up instead of just lie back down.
I thought of Beth, and what she would think of me just crying in a heap on the floor.
I sat up. Taking a deep, slow breath I got to my feet. A run, I needed to increase my fitness. Why not now? It would get me… away.
I selected some old clothes, all my clothes were old but these were my old ones. I quickly stripped out of what I was wearing and threw them on, it wasn’t snowing but it was still cold. Putting on cold clothes was one of my pet hates.
I wasn’t sure where to go except I didn’t want to stay on the Island. For once I wasn’t looking for trouble. The only park I really knew was the one me and Beth had gone to after the cinema, so I set off. I felt like slamming the door behind me as I left but I didn’t. I closed it as quietly as possible.