What I chiefly feel when we’re back at our flat is how empty it is. Dad’s not home yet; he rarely is till late, and even at weekends he works in his little study at the end of the hall, as far as he can get from my music, he says. (He should be so lucky: I might play loud rock music all the time. I don’t. Except sometimes when I don’t want to feel too freaky and I play a Jimi Hendrix CD that Trace lent me, or a Manic Street Preachers one I don’t mind either. Maybe I’m a normal teenager after all. But not very often)
Except when I play music to relieve the silence, except when other people’s music comes through the floor and the walls, except when Barty comes, our flat is quiet. I’d never realised before how much we were surrounded by other people’s noise; how little noise we made ourselves. Our empty flat is maybe one reason Mum likes having Barty so much. She has few women friends. She rarely goes out for lunch, or coffee mornings. She helps at the Q E hospital once a week but that’s about it. When she’s not looking after the flat and Barty and me and dad, she reads mostly. For the first time in my life I wonder if she’s lonely. Perhaps it’s having seen her so pink-cheeked and lively talking to Mrs Hussein makes me think like this.
It’s complicated feeling sorry for mum. It’s doesn’t make me feel happy either. Perhaps that’s it, I think -perhaps being friends with your mum like Trace is friends with hers, means you can’t take her for granted like I’ve always taken mine. If that’s the case I don’t want to be friends with her. Even though I’m a teenager and should know better, I want to be her child; and cuddled now and then, at least when I feel like it. I want her just as mum.
Next day at school I tell Trace I’d like my ears pierced, I’d like them pierced, like now. Today, even. ‘OK,’ she says, her voice brisk, ‘Cool. If that’s what you want, Est.’ After school we both get on the bus going into the city, and she takes me to a place in the Pallisades Centre, off New Street. The ears are fine. They hardly hurt at all. That gives me courage for the rest: ‘OK,’ I say, rashly, ‘Now my belly button’. But this does hurt, especially when they put the stud in after. At least, I think, grimacing, at least I can hide this from mum. What I can’t hide are the little studs in my ears that I have to leave in for six whole weeks. My stomach churns at the thought of what she’ll say.
Trace goes off to get the bus back along the Bristol Road to Northfields. And I go home to mum all by myself.
I sneak into the flat as quietly as I can. Not quietly enough. ‘Esther’, mum calls, not once but twice. When I go, reluctantly, into the sitting-room, I’m astonished to find Mrs Hussein, in hijab and all-enveloping coat sitting on our big sofa. She beckons me over at once, takes my hand and pats it. She says, to my horror. ‘That’s good, Esther, you had your ears done. It’s something I don’t understand about Western women. Why they don’t have their ears pierced as babies like us?’
After that how can Mum say anything? She doesn’t. But she glares at me behind Mrs Hussein’s back. She is pink in the face again, and the moment I go out of the room I hear lively voices start up again, hers and Mrs Hussein’s both. . It’s nice in a way. But disconcerting. At the same time I want the visit to go on and on, to delay the moment I have to face her.
I will spare you what’s said when she does finally come into my room. Mrs Hussein or no Mrs Hussein she is just as angry as I’d expected. On and on: how she’d thought I had more sense; etc, etc, etc. Boring. I start shouting in the end. ‘You’re so so sad ‘ I yell. I call her an old-fashioned…interfering.. old COW. And worse. I am so angry I almost tell her about the belly-button. I don’t care what she thinks any more. Serve her right. My mum is so really really SAD.
Just my bad luck, one ear gets infected quite badly. It hurts. Mum doesn’t exactly say ‘serve you right.’ She just bathes it with disinfectant, looking frosty, taking no notice when I say; ‘Ouch, it stings.’ She still hasn’t seen my belly-button. That hurts too though not as much. It feels very odd not to say uncomfortable every time I stretch my tummy muscles. I’d never realised before how often you do stretch your tummy muscles.
It’s half-term now. I don’t see anyone. I barely even see Granny. (I’m getting on a bit better with her these days. But when we do meet neither of us mentions text messages from Ella, and we are still awkward with each other: Granny is someone else I can’t take for granted any longer.)
Stuart turns up suddenly, but my relief in seeing him does not last long – he seems unhappy too. He spends most of his time with Granny telling her about some love affair which has all gone wrong. I know this because I hear what they are saying one day when I come to fetch Border. I even hear Stuart crying.
Stuart realises I’ve heard him. When I bring Border back from her run, he comes out and says ‘Not your problem, chicken; don’t worry, it’ll all come out in the wash,’ and he takes me to have hot chocolate at the café to make up for it. He has hot chocolate himself, to cheer himself up, he says. But it doesn’t cheer either of us much. To see him trying to talk cheerfully only makes things worse. (Though I can’t help enjoying the chocolate.)
Next day Stuart is due to go back to London. But when I come to Mnemosyne towards lunchtime to fetch Border I hear him and Granny talking again. This time it’s Granny seems upset. Stuart says something like ‘Don’t you think you should tell her, Nora?’ (Stuart and Norah, our sister, both call Granny ‘Nora’ rather than Granny; which is confusing with Norah having the same name more or less - Norah is a name that’s gone down through Granny’s side of the family for umpteen generations. Granny told mum that being called ‘Granny’ made her feel too old. She must have to have got over that by the time I came along. I think I’m glad.
Tell who what? I wonder, as Granny answers in a voice that almost sounds as if she is crying now, ‘What difference would it make? It might only upset her more.’ These were contradictory statements it seemed to me. Never mind. ‘It’s such ancient history, ‘ Granny says next. ‘Why rake it up again? It can’t have anything to do with ….’ She dropped her voice now. Who? I wondered again. Me? Stuart says again. ‘Maybe not. But maybe it does and maybe you should.’
‘No’, says Granny furiously, in the kind of voice which from Granny, I know, means mind your own business. I could hear it even from here. It makes me want both more and less to know whatever it is she’s not saying. More because yes, it’s a secret, and I always want to know secrets. Less because sometimes, with grown-up’s secrets, when you do get to hear them you wish you hadn’t. That won for the moment really. I suppose I might have gone on wondering about this conversation later even so. Only what happens afterwards drives it right out of my head.
I decide to leave Border for the moment. Seeing smoke coming from Bob’s little chimney I go to see him instead. He shouldn’t have been there, of course, on a weekday, usually he’s out working on the building site - usually I only still see him in the evening. But today he’s not working for some reason. I’m pleased until suddenly I find myself saying something that upsets him very badly. I can’t think why - it was he told me in the first place. But it does upset him.
I’m sitting on a stool drinking tea and looking at the painting on the walls all round me when I suddenly remember who it was had a name like Trace’s mum, Misa, or ‘Artemisa’. Dunking a squashed fly biscuit into a mug of his sweet tea I say, excitedly ‘I heard of someone else the other day with a name like your daughter, Artemis…’ At once the dwarf shouts at me – worse BELLOWS -. ‘What do you know about her, what’s it got to do with you, interfering little…’ so sudden and so loud, I am shocked enough to knock my tea over. ‘Careless little ..’ he shouts even louder ‘Get a cloth, wipe up your own mess.’ ‘You told me about her,’ I say, almost crying as I try to mop up the tea with a cloth from his sink, wrinkling my nose. (The dwarf may be tidy but he doesn’t wash his cloths; it smells. Actually it stinks.)
‘Can’t you wipe up properly? Where were you dragged up?’ he shouts.
I am angry now as well as upset. ‘You told me,’ I shout back. ‘You told me.’
He snatches the cloth from my hand now. ‘Get out --. lazy little…’ So I get out, stumbling up through the door, over the deck, falling over his tiller. It’s a wonder I don’t fall in the canal. I bet if I had fallen in, he’d have left me to drown, I think, running home, tears of rage hurt shock still pouring down my cheeks.. The stink of his cloth remains on my hands all evening. I hate him. If he is one of the dwarves he’s Grumpy. Worse than Grumpy. Horrible.
I meant not to go near him after that. But of course as always when you don’t want to see someone, you keep on running into them. And I keep on running into the dwarf, even though I try not to, in the street, as well as when I go to fetch Border. Worse still he behaves as if nothing had happened. I can’t believe the way he changes all the time, from nice through to horrible. “Hullo, Esther,’ he says, ‘Coming in for a cup of tea?’ I glare at him. Not on your life I’m thinking. But all I say is, ‘Not now thanks.’ Are grown-ups mad is what I’m thinking? It only needs dad to stay at home all day with his feet up, reading the Sun and playing Britney: then I’d know the world really had gone stark raving CRAZY.
I ask Granny about the dwarf. She laughs. ‘He’s like that, Esther, take no notice.’ Fat lot of use that is. Gross. Not to say freaky. He can keep bloody Apollo and Artemis to himself. For ever. No skin off my nose.
And then there's Ella. And cranes. Cranes aren’t my escape any more. She’s taken them over. The would-be crane driver called Ella sends me emails every day with crane information; if not emails, she sends text messages. Kinky. It’s not even interesting – it’s the same kind of stuff Rashid has been sending me for yonks now. …. I won’t bore you with it again. When I don’t answer she sends me more emails on each of which is just one word: Liebherr is the first one: Pecco, the second. And so on.
I am baffled at first. Then I realise, suddenly, that these are the names of different makes of Tower Crane. And sure enough all the others I’ve ever heard of, that Rashid and I have exchanged between us follow: Comanza: Potain: Wolff: Kroll: Lindea: Comedin: Heede: one after the other. When the list ends she starts all over again. On my mobile too. I suppose I should have deleted all the messages without even looking. But I can’t bring myself to do that. Suppose one of those emails or texts explains everything at last?
Is granny getting such messages back from me? I don’t know. I don’t ask. But one day she says quite gently. ‘You seem to like cranes a bit overmuch, Esther, don’t you?’ But that could have meant anything. She is very quiet, Granny, these days. Some days she looks at me as if she’s about to say something. But she doesn’t. What has she got to tell me, anyway?
This is true: that I spend a lot of my time this week gazing out at the cranes, my ears hurting - the infected one hurting. And what I see still are the cranes, growing ever higher as the buildings below me keep on growing upwards. I see that language of theirs, which I still can’t read, which I’ll never read, that’s like everything I’ll never know and long for.
How do I know I’ll never know? I just do. It feels like everywhere I turn comes to a dead end; like every person I know has come to a dead end. Even Rahilah; who sends me the odd lovely email but isn’t there any more. She goes to the Islamic school. I still go to stinking Smelly Poke.
Yet the cranes go on swinging, turning, talking to themselves, and more and more I want to join them.
I dream about them all the time. I’m going up them, walking along their long arms balancing. I’m swinging with their little loads and then I’m jumping, falling and wake up screaming. Mum comes in then, says I’m a bit feverish, it’s that infection in my ear again, silly girl. No, I say, it’s Ella. Ella whose voice I hear everywhere, on the radio, in the lifts. ‘THIS IS THE TOP FLOOR.’
Is it me, going crazy now. Is it ME?
I get a text message from Trace. Meet at MAC, it says, 12 2day? hfterms boring.’ I think hftrm’s boring too. OK I text back: CU. At half-past eleven I get the number Two bus up Broad Street and down through Edgbaston from Five Ways as far the cricket ground on one side and Cannon Hill Park on the other. Then I get out. MAC is the Midland Arts Centre. I’ve been there a few times with Mum for something or other – plays and things at Christmas, or films, but I’ve never met any of my friends there before. It’s better than staying at home round Mum and Barty for sure.
Hi, Trace says casually, when I find her. She doesn’t say anything much else. But we hang out together for a bit, quite comfortably. Trace looks less outlandish there than she does in some places. If anything I’m the one who looks out of place, a mere kiddy, I think, come to play in one of the kiddy playgrounds, even if I have got little studs in my ears these days. Not that I care. Whatever I look like I’m fourteen. And an aunt what’s more.
We drink coffee in the café and eat crisps and yummy flapjacks, go out and look at the ducks. We ignore the notice in the kiddy playground, under 6’s only; we swing on the swings, go on the seesaw, until some mothers chase us off.. Then we come back in and wander into the gallery by the cinema. A large notice offers EXHIBITION OF WORK BY BIRMINGHAM ARTISTS. ‘All crap,’ Trace says dismissively. I don’t see anything I like much either. A few are so way out I can’t make head or tail of them (one has a plastic doll stuck upside down on a photograph of a factory chimney) lots more are boring portraits or landscapes.
Right at the far end, I notice three quite familiar-looking paintings. In a moment I see whose paintings they are –I am quite sure they are; the close lines, the fairy-tale landscapes; closed and open at the same time have to be the Dwarf’s paintings. They look good here, I must say, much better than most. Also a bit sinister. The wreaths of creepers in one painting could choke you any minute. I’m about to say ‘I know the artist, he’s a friend of mine,’ (well he isn’t at the moment, really, but let that pass.) when Trace says; ‘mum’s got a painting like these. It’s by my grandfather. But he’s been dead a long time. I think he has. Mum hates his painting. So do I. I hate these too. I’m off home,’ she says. ‘See you at school next week, Est.’ And she’s gone. Before I’ve had time to ask a single question. I can’t believe this somehow. If it’s coincidence – what else can it be? - it’s yet another thing seems creepy.
The first thing that happens when school starts, is creepier; really creepy. In our classroom after break-time, Trace fumbles in her desk, then hands me a piece of paper. ‘Did you your Ella, at last, like you wanted.’ she says. ‘How I see her.’
She hands it to me face down. I hesitate before taking it from her. I’d almost forgotten asking Trace, it was so long ago, and the way things are I’m not sure I want to see a picture of Ella. She doesn’t exist. Or at least I don’t want her to.
I turn the piece of paper over. A girl stares up at me, frowning, the way someone in a self-portrait frowns, staring at themselves in a mirror. But it’s not a self-portrait. The girl doesn’t look the least like Trace. Yet she reminds me of someone. Who? Granny? It can’t be. Yet she does - the young Granny, the one in all those photographs, frowning and frowning. She freaks me out. I hate it.
I don’t tell Trace this. I just smile and say ‘Thanks, Trace. Cool.’ (I’m getting better at Trace: I really am.) But as soon as she slopes off I open my desk lid, pick out my atlas, the only book big enough to hold the sheet of paper and hide it away. Not that it helps. All the time I’m sitting at that desk, it’s if those staring eyes are boring up at me, through the cover of the book, through the exercise books on top of it, through the desk lid. GRANNY. What is Granny doing pretending to be Ella? I don’t know whether I hate her, Trace, or the drawing more.
Another thing freaks me out today and the next day: all week in fact. I’ve said before how everything keeps changing; not just places, people too – the way Granny has changed lately, the way Mum seems to have a bit. (The Seventh Dwarf of course keeps changing all the time from nice to nasty and back again; but I don’t count that. It’s how he is.)
But now Jay has changed and I don’t count that. He’s playing the fool. There’s nothing unusual about Jay being jokey. But usually he’s just jokey with us. He lies low otherwise, like I’ve said. But now he seems to have forgotten about protective colouring. He’s being funny in a way that is dangerous, I think. I can’t think what’s got into him. And I don’t like it. And in some way I think it’s my fault for telling Jay that they wouldn’t think he was a terrorist, they wouldn’t hurt him because he was Hindu not a Muslim.
He keeps on saying to anyone who’ll listen. ‘Who me? I’m a Hindu.’ Meaning: I’m no terrorist; meaning he’s one Asian doesn’t have to worry about Frankie and Co. But who says Frankie knows the difference between Hindu and Muslim? Who says he cares that there’s a difference? I bet he doesn’t. (I tell Jay this. It’s one thing I do say to him, these days; I even email him to tell him.)
Trace says he’s behaving that way because he’s so angry about what happened to Rahilah. ‘Maybe,’ I say, feeling guilty about that too. ‘And because you’re so nasty to him these days, and because’ she adds, ‘Because you dumped him for Rashid.’
I can’t believe this. It really freaks me out ‘You make it sound like he was my boyfriend,’ I say angrily. ‘It wasn’t like that.’
‘He thought it was,’ Trace says.
‘Well it wasn’t. And Rashid’s not my boyfriend anyway. He’s not allowed girlfriends.’
‘Is that why don’t you talk to Jay any more? Suit yourself,’ Trace says, and off she goes, after maddening me as usual. I’ve got enough problems now without this one. Not everything’s my fault, is it? Or Ella’s? And I do talk to Jay, I mutter, about being a Hindu anyway. I sent him an email. But he never answered the email. He doesn’t listen!
It isn’t that Jay does any more than tease. One day he turns up in the playground with fake gold rings in his ears – of course he has to take them out before coming into school. Another day he wears baggies and hoodies over his school uniform and swaggers about just like Frankie. I can see that some of Frankie’s girls do find him funny. The bolder ones snigger when Frankie isn’t looking. And Frankie himself claps Jay on the back, says ‘Wanna join the gang then?’ smiling. Perhaps he’s too stupid to see Jay is sending him up. I am reassured for a moment –Jay can get away with more than the rest of us because he is funny – when he’s not being annoying. Maybe we too can afford to laugh.
These are his bigger teases. The rest are little niggling ones: jokes; comments; silly drawings on the blackboard in our classroom – Frankie can’t see these because he’s in a different class; but some of his girls can and the brightest one at least can see they’re send-ups. All week Jay goes on doing it, all next week too. By which time Rashid, me and Trace don’t find it funny at all, we’re getting really fed up with him. ‘Can’t you stop playing about for one minute, Jay?’ Trace says crossly. Rashid, in particular, gets more and more nervous. Frankie and Co know he and Jay are friends, and as a Muslim he’s in much more danger. He starts pretending he and Jay aren’t friends any longer. He keeps away from him in the playground. I don’t blame him. I keep away from Jay, too. Which only seems to make him worse. Seeing him comb his hair sometimes I’m so irritated with him, besides worried, I want to scream out, ‘How can you?’ But I don’t. While Jay just keeps on teasing and touching up his hair. I don’t know which is worse.
Everything is bad now: I’ll list the bad things, in no particular order.
1) Having to stay in after school three times in two weeks, because I haven’t done work properly.
2) Trace being cross with me because she thinks I haven’t appreciated her drawing. She doesn’t say anything but I’m sure that’s why she’s unfriendly suddenly.
3) Jay being so silly. See above. Frankie and his gang like sharks circling, waiting to get him. (At least that’s how it looks to me.)
4)) I haven’t had an email from Rashid in ages; or from Rahilah. Rashid smiles at me awkwardly sometimes but nothing more. I don’t know anything about what goes on in Rashid’s head, I realise, much less than I know about Jay’s. How lonely I think. That’s another thing bugs me.
5) Granny being bad-tempered again and not having time for me.
7) Border walking on a piece of glass and cutting her paw quite badly. Granny has to take her to the vet which makes her still more unfriendly (see above), her paw is bandaged, but has to be re-bandaged all the time because she keeps biting it off.
8) Barty teething and grizzling all the time he’s with us. We’ve had him a night or two to give my sister the chance to sleep; meaning mum doesn’t sleep so she’s cross too. Barty is still not walking, no matter how much I encourage him. (Leave him alone, Esther! mum says crossly.)
9) Not talking to the Dwarf. (See above.) Even though it’s my fault.
10) Ella/Granny still sitting in my desk, I keep seeing the eyes. I keep dreaming about the eyes, I keep finding email messages about Ella the crane-driver.
11) It never stops raining. The cranes look as if they’re standing in a sea of mud. The builders have mud splashes all the way up their jeans. Even the ones I know are too fed up to talk to me when I meet them in the street – which I do quite often. I walk past the site on purpose, almost every day. I wish I didn’t. But I can’t stop myself, any more than I can stop opening Ella’s emails. ‘GET UP A CRANE,’ she says most days now. ‘YOU DON’T KNOW YOU’RE LIVING UNLESS YOU’RE LOOKING AT THE WORLD FROM UP A CRANE.’
12. And then there’s dreaming. Dreams about climbing cranes. And falling. And worse than that.
It doesn’t just freak me out the first time. It goes on doing it. It freaks out mum too as soon as she finds out.
She doesn’t find out for a week or two. It only happens inside my room at first.
The first time I woke up on the floor by my bed I thought I’d just fallen out. I could have just about. But the next time I woke up right over by my desk. And I wasn’t on the floor. I was doubled over my computer as if I’d run into my desk. As if this was what had woken me up.
I still didn’t catch on? Why should it? It had never happened to me before. I just went back to bed and fell asleep and in the morning I thought I must have dreamed it.
But it happens again. And again. And each time I’m a bit further from my bed. Once I wake up by the window. Next time I’m half out of the door, the next halfway down the passage. It’s the time after that mum comes out of the sitting-room and finds me almost at the front door, my eyes shut, like a zombie; then, for the first time, she twigs I’m sleepwalking
Before that I’d told tell myself each time; I was only dreaming; I just dreamed I found myself so far out of my bed. This didn’t explain the odd bruise I picked up; on an arm, on a shin; a small bruise on my cheek that I claimed, even to myself, came from someone throwing a tennis ball in the gym. I didn’t want to know let alone say what was really happening; it was much too scary.
I never sleepwalked before Ella came back. I do now though, but not every night. Mum is worried about it. She has even made me admit to myself I am sleepwalking, though I don’t want to. She keeps looking at me carefully, asking me if I’m alright, if I’m in trouble at school. I shake my head. I’m fine, I say.
(I wake up cold, when I’ve been walking. When I dream in bed, I wake up too hot. One morning at breakfast Dad explains that I’m too cold or too hot, because of thermo-regulation – which automatically cools your body or heats it as necessary when you’re awake but not when you’re asleep. The science master at school talked about this – so I know Dad’s got it wrong; thermo- regulation works when you’re asleep. It’s when you’re dreaming it doesn’t. I don’t tell him. It doesn’t matter. It’s his way of showing that he too is worried about me, about the sleepwalking. I don’t think he knows how not to talk like this.)
Mum has even told Granny about it. Granny thinks she should talk to me now, but I don’t want to talk to her. In particular I don’t want to talk about Ella. But she does. She calls me in each day when I take Border back. But I say I’m in a hurry and won’t stop. One day – is this my mother’s doing? - she comes to the flat, and tries to sit me down in the sitting-room while my mother brings us tea. It is just like a tea party – very polite. I am polite. At first. This isn’t the Granny I know, she is polite too, and anxious, and doesn’t seem sure what to say. Her hands pick up her cup and put it down again. Her hands look older than the rest of her I’ve always thought – mottled with liver spots and with veins that stand out like water pipes. But all of her looks old to me today. See if I care.
Each time she tries talking to me about Ella I stonewall her – this is the politer way of saying I shut her up. ‘Why should I want to talk about my imaginary friend?’ I ask. ‘I grew out of her years ago.’ When she’s tried once too often, I snap. I say ‘Has your boyfriend walked out on you Granny?’ (I think this is possible, he never seems to be around any more. If he ever was.) She flushes at this point. ‘Don’t be offensive, Ella.’ Then realises what she’s said and changes it to ‘Esther.’ in a flustered way. ‘Are you sure you didn’t mean Ella?’ I say nastily. (She’d had been mean to me for a while, I remember. So it is my turn.)
Once as far as my grandmother was concerned I could do no wrong – and vice versa. Now it seems I can do no right. She still seems to want to do right by me; she’s trying very hard now, but she doesn’t know how to any more. She’s too old I think. She hasn’t a clue.
Granny looks hurt at the look I give her. I think she does. I wish she didn’t. One, it makes me feel bad for a moment, two, a truly hurt granny is someone quite new to me, and I don’t like it at all.
It’s a relief when my mother comes back into the room. Not long after, Granny says she’s leaving. I glare at her as she goes out. ‘Hadn’t you better come and walk your dog?’ she says coldly, glaring back. ‘I’ve got other things to do this morning.’ It’s a relief to hear her sounding more like normal, sometimes stroppy Granny. She also looks a bit less old from behind.
My mother makes to follow her. Then, glancing at me, she stays just where she is. She sighs when we hear the front door close at last.
‘You two,’ she says in an exasperated way. ‘I don’t know which of you is worst, my daughter or my mother.’
‘Why does she have to be so nosy?’ I ask.
‘You used to be pretty nosy with her,’ my mother says.
‘I’m going to take Border out,’ I say. But when I get to the Gas Street Basin, Border is tied up outside Poseidon, there’s no sign of Granny or the Dwarf for that matter.
I find Trace outside on the other side of the pontoon, coming out of Bob’s boat. She’s carrying a package under one arm.
‘I found out where he lives and came to see his pictures, and to show him Misa’s.’ is all she says. ‘
‘I thought you didn’t like them, Trace.’ I say.
‘I don’t, I hate them. I just wanted to find out if he’d painted Misa’s.’
‘Did he?’ I ask.
‘He wasn’t saying.’ But nor is she saying anything either. Her face is tight. When she sees where I am going she sets off in the other direction. It would have made much more sense for her to get to the bus by going my way, with me.
Does nobody like me any more?
Not even the crane driver seems to likes me. I run into him just one more time.
He keeps looking round to see if his gaffer’s there. ‘Want to get me in trouble do you?’ he asks me, his voice very unfriendly.
‘No.’ I say. I point to the notice under which he’s standing. GUARD DOGS ON SITE. ‘Does anyone ever try to break into the site at night. Do the dogs get them?’
‘What dogs? That’s just to scare people. Mind you, the fence’s hard enough to get over. I’ve heard of wire-cutters used on some sites, but that’s never happened here, not I know of.’ He looks at me then suspiciously. ‘You’ve not got daft ideas have you?
“Of course not,’ I lie. ‘I’ve just got a story to write for school that’s all.’
‘Oh a story,’ he says. ‘That’s it, is it? Nothing wrong with that, that’s all, just goo and write it.’
He doesn’t even say goodbye. He laughs at me and goes back into the site. Even if his boots are as muddy, his donkey jacket hasn’t got a mark on it, unlike the faded and dusty overalls of most of the other site workers, working on the ground. Only their plastic hats look new and shiny. The hats on a building-site always do look new and shiny, unlike the working clothes.
Next morning at school, Jay turns up with a gold earring just like Frankie’s. He even turns up in class with it. Trace passes him a note, which he passes on to me and Rashid. ‘What’s the new look, Jay?’ she writes. The glare she throws him at the same time makes it clear she’s not giving him a compliment.
‘I’m starting a rap club,’ Jay has written underneath.
I add, ‘You can do better than that, Jay.’ I don’t look at him. Rashid adds nothing, but he smiles at me as he hands the note back to Jay; for the first time in ages it’s one of his melting smiles that turn my stomach over, and that I haven’t had enough of lately. Jay intercepts it – he also intercepts the smile I give back – Rashid has made me feel better for a moment. Trace heaves a sigh as if she’s fed up with the lot of us. But I’m sure she’s just as worried for Jay as I am – as Rashid is.
Doorey comes in then and makes Jay take the earring out. But it’s back in his ear at the end of the day. Worse still I see him walking round the playground with Frankie, who is holding his arm and talking to him urgently, smiling what looks to me a very dangerous smile. Jay looks small besides Frankie, stocky as he is.
‘He’ll have a flat-top next,’ Trace says, sarcastically. ‘I guess it’s about time he got himself a new hairstyle.’
I bet she wishes she hadn’t said that. But worried as we were for Jay, how could any of us have guessed?