The one slight advantage of leaving the office late tonight was that, for once, I was able to get a seat on the train home. It’s usually packed and I’m left standing in between carriages, surrounded by other equally pissed-off travelers. I needed the space to help me relax and calm down tonight. While I was waiting on the platform I decided I should spend the journey home trying to work out what it is I actually want to do with my life and how I’m going to go about making it happen. I have similar useless discussions with myself on the way home at least once or twice every week. I was too tired to concentrate tonight.
There were two girls sitting opposite me and their conversation about clothes, soap operas, and who’d done what with whose boyfriend was far more interesting than anything I was thinking about.
February. I hate this time of year. It’s cold, wet, and depressing. It’s dark when I leave the house in the morning and it’s dark when I get home at night. This time tomorrow, I keep reminding myself, it will be the weekend. Two days without work. I can’t wait.
I drag myself up the hill and around the corner into Calder Grove and I can finally see our home at the end of the road. It’s not much but it’s all we’ve got at the moment and it will have to do for now. We’re on the council waiting list to get a bigger place but it’ll probably be years before they move us. Now that Lizzie is working again we might finally be able to start saving so that we can put a deposit on a house of our own and get out of this apartment building. We’d planned to move a couple of years ago but she fell pregnant with Josh and everything got put on hold again. I love my kids but we didn’t plan any of them. We were just starting to get back on our feet after having Edward and Ellis but then Josh came along and we found it hard to put food on the table, never mind money in the bank. We claim all the benefits we’re entitled to and Harry, Lizzie’s dad, helps us out now and again, but it’s a constant struggle. It shouldn’t have to be like this. Still, we get more help from Liz’s dad than we do from my family. Mum’s in Spain with her new boyfriend, my brother’s in Australia, and no one’s heard anything from Dad for three years now. The only time we hear from any of them is on the children’s birthdays and at Christmas.
There’s a gang of kids under a broken street lamp in the alleyway which runs between two of the houses on my right. I see them there most nights, smoking and drinking and driving beat-up cars around the estate. I don’t like them. They’re trouble. I put my head down and walk a little faster. I worry about my children growing up around here. Calder Grove itself isn’t that bad but some parts of this estate are rough and things are getting worse. The council is trying to run apartment buildings like ours down so they can flatten them and build new houses. There are six apartments in our building-two on each floor-and only ours and one other is left occupied now. We try not to have anything to do with the people upstairs. I don’t trust them. Gary and Chris, I think they’re called. Two middle-aged men who live together on the top floor. They don’t seem short of cash but neither of them ever seem to go out to work either. And there’s a constant stream of visitors ringing their doorbell at all hours of the day and night. I’m sure they’re selling something up there, but I don’t think I want to know what it is.
I finally reach the communal front door and let myself into the building. The door sticks and then opens with a loud, ear-piercing creak which can probably be heard from halfway down the street. I’ve been trying to get the council to come and sort it out for months but they don’t want to know, even though I work for them. Inside the building the entrance hall is dark and cold and my footsteps echo all around me. The kids hate this lobby and I understand why. They get scared out here. I wouldn’t want to spend too long out here on my own either. I unlock the flat, go inside, and shut, lock, and bolt the door behind me.
Home. Thank God for that. I take off my coat and shoes and, for almost half a second, I relax.
“Where’ve you been?” Lizzie scowls. She appears from Edward and Josh’s room and crosses the hallway diagonally to the kitchen. Her arms are piled high with dirty washing.
“Work,” I reply. The answer’s so obvious I wonder whether it’s a trick question. “Why?”
“You should have been back ages ago.”
“Sorry, I got delayed. Got stuck with some woman having a go at me. I missed my train.”
“You could have called.”
“I’ve run out of credit on my cell phone and I didn’t have any cash on me to refill it. Sorry, Liz, I didn’t think I’d be this late.”
No response. I can’t even see her now. The fact she’s gone quiet on me is ominous. Something’s wrong and I know that whatever it is, any problems that I might have had today will now have to take second place. All my worries will pale into insignificance alongside whatever it is that’s bothering her. This seems to happen almost every day and it’s really beginning to piss me off. I know Lizzie works hard and the kids act up, but she should think herself lucky. She should try dealing with some of the shit that I have to put up with each day. I take a deep breath and follow her into the kitchen.
“Your dinner’s in the oven,” she grunts.
“Thanks,” I mumble as I open the oven door and recoil from the sudden blast of red-hot air which comes from it. I pick up a tea towel and use it to grip the edge of a dried-out and overcooked plate of meat pie, fries, and peas. “Are you okay?”
“Not really,” she replies, her voice barely audible. She’s on her knees shoving washing into the machine.
“What’s the matter?”
I crunch into a burned fry and then quickly smother the rest of my food in sauce to take away some of the charcoal taste. Don’t want to risk Lizzie thinking I don’t like it. I hate playing these games. It’s obvious something’s wrong, so why won’t she just tell me what it is? Why do we have to go through this stupid routine every time she has something on her mind? I decide to try again.
“I can tell something’s wrong.”
“Very perceptive of you,” she mumbles. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Obviously it does.”
“Look,” she sighs, switching on the washing machine and standing up and stretching her back, “if you really want to know what’s wrong why don’t you ask the kids? Maybe they’ll tell you why I…”
Right on cue two of the children push their way into the kitchen, jostling with each other for position. Edward digs his elbow into his little sister’s ribs. Ellis shoves him back out of the way and then slams against the table, spilling Liz’s coffee.
“Dad, will you tell her?” Ed spits, pointing accusingly.
“Tell her what?” I ask, distracted by the pile of bills I’ve just found on the table.
“Tell her to stop following me around,” he yells. “She’s just doing it to annoy me.”
“Why don’t you both just leave each other alone? Go and play in your own rooms.”
“I want to watch telly,” Ed protests.
“I was watching it first,” Ellis complains.
“She’ll be going to bed soon,” I sigh, trying to reason with Edward. “Just let her watch it for a while then you can change the channel when she’s gone to bed.”
“But my program’s on now,” he whines, not having any of it. “It’s not fair, you always take her side. Why do you always take her side?”
I’ve had enough.
“Let’s just leave the television off then,” I tell them. Both of them start screaming at me but even their god-awful noise is drowned out by Lizzie who shrieks at the pair of them to get out of her sight at a deafening volume. Ed pushes his sister as he barges out of the room. Ellis slaps him on the back as he passes.
“Well handled,” Liz mumbles sarcastically.
“Little sods,” I mumble back.
“That’s why I’ve had enough,” she snaps. “I’ve had to put up with their rubbish constantly since we came out of school and I can’t stand it anymore. Okay?”
She storms out of the room. I don’t bother following, there’s no point. There’s nothing I can do or say to make things any easier so I take the easy option and do and say nothing.
“He was looking at me.”
“Get lost! He was looking at me. He’s not interested in you!”
Josie Stone and her best friend Shona Robertson walked down Sparrow Hill and across the park together arm in arm, laughing as they discussed Darren Francis, a boy two years ahead of them at school who they’d just passed outside Shona’s house.
“Anyway,” Josie teased, “everyone knows that Kevin Braithwaite fancies you. You stick with Kevin and leave me and Darren alone.”
“Kevin Braithwaite?!” Shona protested. “I wouldn’t be seen dead with him. He’s more your type.”
The two friends tripped and slid down the greasy grassy bank, still giggling and holding onto each other’s arms as they struggled to keep their footing. Their speed increased as they stumbled farther down the hill and onto level ground. Josie slipped as they ran across the middle of a muddy football field. Shona instinctively reached out and yanked her back up before she hit the ground.
“Careful!” she laughed as she struggled to stay standing like a bad ice-skater.
Josie and Shona were as close as sisters. They’d met at school three years ago and, both being only children, had quickly become inseparable. They spent almost all of their free time together and often slept over at each other’s house. Last summer Josie had even spent two weeks in Spain with Shona and her family. Nothing was allowed to come between them, not even boys.
“I heard that Dayne was around Phillipa’s house last night,” Shona said, suddenly remembering a vital piece of gossip she’d heard on the way home from school. “She’s a dirty tramp that Phillipa.”
Josie stopped walking.
Shona carried on for a few seconds, oblivious.
“Danni said she saw her with her hands down…”
When she realized she was on her own she stopped, turned around, and looked at her friend.
“What’s the matter with you?” she asked. Josie didn’t answer. “Come on you silly cow, the others will have gone if we don’t get a move on.”
Still Josie didn’t move. She simply stood and stared at Shona who, not understanding her friend’s behavior, turned around again and continued walking toward the shops and the group of girls from school they’d arranged to meet there.
Josie broke into a sudden sprint. She ran directly at Shona and shoved her in the back between her shoulder blades, knocking her off her feet and down into the long wet grass. She tried to stand but before she could get up Josie kicked her in the stomach. She rolled over onto her back and whined in pain.
“What the hell are you doing, you silly bitch?”
Josie didn’t answer. Instead she simply dropped her knees onto Shona’s exposed chest, forcing every scrap of air from her lungs. Shona gagged with surprise and shock as she struggled to breathe in. Stunned and wide-eyed she stared into Josie’s face.
“Why did you…?” she began to say. Josie wasn’t listening. She’d found a stone half-buried in the mud and grass nearby and was desperately digging her fingers around its edge, trying to pull it out of the ground. Panting with effort she picked up the heavy, brick-sized rock and held it high above her head.
“Josie, don’t…” Shona whimpered.
Holding it with both hands, Josie brought the stone crashing down on her friend’s chest. She felt her ribs crack and splinter under the force of the undefended impact. In too much sudden pain to scream, Shona groaned in agony and watched helplessly as Josie lifted the stone again and brought it down on her for a second time. She hit her with such savage force that a broken rib punctured one of Shona’s lungs. Her breathing became erratic and rasping, then desperately shallow and forced. Her shattered rib cage began to move with sudden, juddering movements as her damaged body struggled to continue to function.
Josie leaned down over her dying friend and looked deep into her face. Her skin was ghostly white, smeared with splashes of mud and dribbles of blood which now gurgled and bubbled from the corners of her mouth. Her dark, panic-filled eyes began to glaze over and lose their focus. She was aware of Josie lifting the stone again, but nothing more.
She knew that her friend was dead but Josie had to be certain. She smashed the rock into her face, breaking her left cheekbone and almost dislocating her jaw. Exhausted with effort she rolled away from the corpse and sat panting on the wet grass nearby.
Josie stared at the sprawling dark shadows of the town below her. She couldn’t go down there now. She couldn’t go home either. She didn’t know where she was going to go or what she was going to do. Maybe she could just stay in the park and hope no one comes looking, she thought. Either that or she’d have to take her chances and just run.
She hadn’t had any choice. She’d had to kill Shona. She felt no guilt or remorse for what she’d done, just relief.
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