Every day after school I lug my bike up one hundred and sixty eight steps to our flat, and every day my bike turns into a mad thing. I try to take control by grabbing the handlebars and lifting them in the air so the back wheel bounces up the steps behind me. But the front wheel goes mental because it can’t see the ground and the pedals jab at my calves giving me bruises and tearing holes in the holes in my tights. It’s November and it’s pissing it down, so I’m soaked and frozen from the ride home and the bike is wet too, all cold slippery metal. Two times I lose my balance and have to grab onto the wire mesh they’ve put around the stairwell to stop people falling down and smashing themselves into bits on the concrete at the bottom.
To take my mind off my psycho bike, each time I reach a landing I glance up at the walls to take in the graffiti. Usually it’s words, but sometimes, when they’ve got something really special to say, they draw a picture. On Level 5 someone’s painted a dick. His, I assume.
He’s pissing out his territory. I know that. I’m thirteen, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. Still, you’ve got to ask yourself what kind of dickhead wants this territory where there are discarded syringes in the stairwell, and the lifts don’t work, let me think… oh yes, nothing works, and anyone who’s got any functioning brain cells left long ago. Which makes me stupid, after all.
Just before I get to Level 7, I hear footsteps running down the concrete steps towards me. The footsteps are soft, like a pitter-patter. I’m holding my breath. I get a better grip on my bike, hugging it tight against me. No one’s nicking my bike off me.
Then the feet appear, and they’re attached to Omar, so I can start to breathe again. Omar’s in Year 11 at school, and he thinks he’s David Blaine or Derren Brown or something. He’s always pulling things out of people’s ears or reading people’s minds. He’s got long thin hands, and his fingers are always flexing like they’re practising to make things disappear. It’s not going to put him on TV, but one of his tricks is changing out of school uniform in, like, a millisecond. Seriously, I’ve never seen him in school uniform anywhere but school. Today he’s wearing jeans and a leather jacket.
‘Hey, Carnaby,’ he says.
I feel stupid in my school kilt with my hair plastered to my face and rain dripping off the end of my nose that I can’t wipe off because I’ve got to keep hold of my bike.
‘Hey,’ I say.
We kind of pause as we pass each other on the stairs. When we see each other in the corridor at school he always teases me. I think he can read my mind well enough to know I’m afraid he’ll play a trick on me. Once, in the school canteen, he pretended to pull an orange out of Zoe’s bum, and she was so embarrassed she nearly died. Then he hypnotised Martin, although he got suspended for two days for that. I’d hate it if he did that to me. I don’t want to encourage him, so I don’t speak to him.
‘Carnaby, I’m having a vision of the future,’ he says.
I scowl at him. So much for not encouraging him.
He puts his long thin fingers to his forehead and screws his face up like he’s concentrating hard.
‘I see…’ he pauses, frowns, ‘I see a man… in your flat.’
‘I’m not lis…’
‘Wait!’ He lifts his long palm towards me to stop me speaking. He opens his eyes wide. ‘It’s Borys!’
I roll my eyes. Borys is my sister’s Polish boyfriend, and it’s not unusual to see him in our flat. Anyone can see him there, he’s there all the time. Not today, maybe, not after the row he had with Mum last night. But the future is a long time. He’ll definitely be back.
Omar grins at me and I try not to smile back. Everyone always forgives Omar.
I turn away from him and I start lugging my bike up the steps.
I hear his voice behind me.
I turn my head, giving him a look which I hope makes it clear that I don’t think anything of him.
‘Nothing,’ he says. And then he grins again.
I give him the finger and he laughs.
A few steps later and I hear his voice again, from a couple of flights below.
‘Hey, Carnaby?’ he calls out again.
But I’m not going to say ‘what?’ and have him say ‘nothing’ again. He seems to think that’s hilarious. So I ignore him.
‘Hey, Carnaby,’ his voice rises up from the stairwell again, ‘do you want a hand?’
I’m tempted. For a millisecond. Then I tell myself not to be stupid. If I say yes, he’ll probably pull a plastic hand out of his jacket or something. So I don’t reply. I just keep going.
When I get to the landing at Level 8, I see someone at my door, which is near the far end, eight flats along, and I stop before I step out onto the walkway. He’s squatting down, facing away from me. Now I know where Omar’s vision came from. It’s Borys. Omar must have seen him on his way down.
Although he’s got his back to me I can tell it’s Borys because his shoulders slope down and his ears are pink and his hair’s so short I can see the skin of his skull, and the back of his neck and his arms are all covered in tattoos. He’s got a snake winding round his arm. It climbs up his left arm and slithers all the way across his shoulders and down his other arm. It took hours and he says it really hurt when they did it but it was worth it. From where I am I can see he’s got his bag open in front of him and he’s moving stuff around as though he’s trying to fit something inside it. I don’t know if he’s just come out of our flat or if he’s been getting no answer at the door and is giving up now. I don’t call out to him because I don’t want to talk to him. Not now, not after last night. I wait there until he stands up and walks off in a hurry and then he’s gone, breaking into a jog and heading down the steps at the other end of the walkway. That’s when I wheel the bike out of the stairwell and onto the open walkway.
You can say what you like about Shepherd’s Way, and none of it would be good, not anymore, but when I walk along these walkways I feel like I’m walking across the sky. Up above me – not counting the bottom of the walkway that’s directly over my head – the sky is dark with a fat inky cloud. Down below me is the round flat roof of the Egleton Shopping Centre, and then streets of terraced houses. Because of the rain, the rooftops are glinty, like metal, but it still looks cosy where people have lights on inside their houses. I can see a strip of the river. The water is dark and oily. On a sunny day, when the sky is blue and London’s shining, the rich people would pay a fortune for a view like this. They’d kill to be able to see a bit of water. But they wouldn’t touch Shepherd’s Way. No way. They wouldn’t even come as far as Level 8 because they’d stop at the first step and decide they didn’t want to get their lovely shoes dirty. It’s like Cinderella backwards. Put your foot on the step and someone waves a magic wand and everything vanishes – all your money and your lovely castle, all your crowns and dresses.
Number 87 is home. I rest the bike against the wall while I dig out the keys. I’ve got a zip-up pocket in my hoody, and that’s where I keep anything I don’t want to lose. That’s basically my keys and any cash that comes my way. Right now the only thing in my pocket is my keys. The padlock on the security grille is locked, which means no one’s in. I’m guessing Borys came by but no one was in to answer the door. I unlock the padlock and then stick my key in the door. Once the door’s open, I wheel the bike in. I try to shove it right up against the wall so it doesn’t take up any space, but there’s no way round it. I mean literally there’s no way round it. Mum yells at me to move it any time she needs to get out the house, which isn’t as often as you might think.
I stick my head around the door to the lounge. Mum is in actually, which is a surprise. She’s having a nap on the couch with her back to me.
‘Is there anything for dinner?’ I ask. But Mum doesn’t answer. She’s out of it. I’m guessing she never heard Borys at the door, which is just as well under the circumstances.
Nobody’s good company when they’re asleep. So I head into the kitchen. I open the fridge door, then cover my nose and breathe through my mouth because it smells of stale food, although how it smells of any kind of food is one of the wonders of the world because there’s hardly ever any in there. I unplug the fridge to save money – it’s just electricity wasted if there’s nothing in there. I know it’s the unplugging that makes it smell worse, but I can’t help that.
Anyway, I still always open the fridge because you’ve got to hope for the best. If Mum works a shift at the shop, which she does one or two times a month, she might bring something back with her, and I think I’m in luck because there’s a bottle of lemonade. Except that’s empty too, so I take it out and bin it. Then I switch the radio on and glance at Mum, but she doesn’t move, so I turn it up. I don’t mind cleaning up, but it would be nice to have someone to chat to while I’m doing it.
I go through the lounge again to get to the room I share with Jude and Em, taking the radio with me. It looks like a bomb’s gone off: there are clothes all over the floor, Em’s milk bottles rolling around, their teats all fluffy and sticky, and dirty nappies rolled into tight little balls, fat and smelling stinky-sweet. I take off my uniform and change into my jeans, and then I start picking stuff up, chucking nappies into a plastic bag. All the time I’m singing along to the radio so I don’t have to think about what I’m doing. I dance around a bit, too, because there’s no one looking, and because it keeps me warm.
When the flat’s half decent I go back to the kitchen. I find my pair of rubber gloves, pull them on, scrub out Em’s bottles and rinse them with boiling water from the kettle. Then I run some water into the sink and add a squirt of washing-up liquid, and I swish my school shirt and my tights and knickers around quickly, then hang them to dry by the window, except it’s been raining so the air’s wet which means it’ll all still be damp when I put it back on in the morning. Still, the shirt doesn’t need ironing if I hang it up, which is good because we haven’t got an iron.
All of a sudden my tummy starts to ache, and then it starts groaning at me really loudly. On school days I always think if I eat enough school dinner I’ll be able to go without when I get home, but sometimes it doesn’t work.
Dinner at school was lasagne: lumps of gristly meat and cubes of hard carrot layered between pasta which tasted like you imagine a tyre might taste if it was smeared in gravy. I know beggars can’t be choosers but I couldn’t bring myself to eat a second portion. Although if you put it in front of me now, with my belly aching and nothing in the fridge, I’d scoff it down no problem.
If I get really hungry, like so hungry I can’t bear it any longer, I go round to Sheena’s mum’s café under the railway arch, and she gives me a plate of sausage and beans. But it’s only when I’m so hungry that being hungry is more important than being embarrassed. I was there two times last week. So right now I’m too embarrassed to go and beg for food from Sheena’s mum again.
I should go and buy a loaf of bread and make toast, maybe fry an egg, but I need something right this minute. I can’t wait. If I get bread I’ll eat it straight from the packet, which isn’t a good look. Chips are better because you can stuff them in your mouth as quick as you want right there in the street and no one thinks anything of it.
I put my head round the lounge door again. The music from the radio sounds too loud now I’m this hungry. My brain’s concentrating so hard on finding food that the music is screeching in my head.
‘I’m going to get chips,’ I say. ‘Can I have some cash?’
I wait in the doorway.
Mum doesn’t move a muscle. It’s like she can’t hear me. Like she hasn’t heard the radio blaring, and me bashing around in the kitchen doing the washing-up. I think she’s faking it because she doesn’t want to admit to me that she hasn’t got any cash. I go over to the couch and look down at her. I can’t see her face at all because her long hair has fallen across it. She’s all curled up like a baby, so I can’t even see her breathing. If she does have any cash it will be in her pocket, but she’ll go mad if she wakes up and finds my hand stuffed in there.
‘You’re hungry too, aren’t you, Mum?’ I suggest loudly. ‘I bet you’d really fancy some chips.’
My tummy’s beginning to eat itself and I’m feeling all shaky. All my brain can think about is how hungry I am.
‘Chips and a wing?’
Chips and a wing is £1.99 at the Sunshine Café in the Egleton or £2.79 if you add a drink. Chips and a piece of chicken is £2.20 and a drink is £3.
‘I can get you a piece of chicken,’ I suggest to Mum. ‘It’s only an extra 21p, it’s well worth it.’
Still she doesn’t budge.
Then I tell her if she’s got enough cash we can get two wings and a piece of chicken and chips all for £2.79. That way we can share it. We don’t have to add a drink – we can just have the food.
I’m trying to tempt her, but it’s just making me hungrier.
‘Mum!’ I lean over and speak right into her ear. ‘Wake up, you’re starving!’
When she still doesn’t move, I reach out and I poke her shoulder.
Her shoulder moves a bit under my finger, but she doesn’t wake up.
Gently, so she doesn’t yell at me, I shake her.