The Drowning of Arthur Braxton

The bestselling modern fairytale, with a new introduction from Luke Cutforth‘I loved it … so good!’ CARRIE HOPE FLETCHERArthur Braxton has had enough. His mum has left, his dad is broken and he’s the laughing stock of his high school.But things are about to change. When Arthur runs away and shelters in an old abandoned bathhouse, he sees a naked woman swimming in the pool. From this point on, his sad little life will never be the same.
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The Drowning of Arthur Braxton

   


   4th Estate

   An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

   1 London Bridge Street

   London SE1 9GF

   

   This edition published by 4th Estate in 2016

   First published in Great Britain by The Friday Project in 2013

   Copyright © Caroline Smailes 2013

   Cover Layout Design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2016

   Caroline Smailes asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

   A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

   All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

   Source ISBN: 9780007479092

   Ebook Edition © July 2016 ISBN: 9780007479399

   Version: 2016-09-28

   ‘Magical, weird, wonderful, dark unique Northern brilliance’

   MATT HAIG

   ‘… there was so much about this book to love; the decrepit seaside setting, the terrible weather, the gritty realism, the magic, the freshness, the strangeness, and the way the story and the characters haunted me afterwards. I felt safe throughout this novel – I knew I was in good hands; with each change of voice and structure I remained confident in Smailes’ ability to lead things to a satisfying conclusion. And that’s exactly what she did’

   CARYS BRAY

   ‘This thoroughly modern retelling is everything a fairy tale should be: strange, beautiful and wholly unexpected’

   TANYA BYRNE

   ‘This beautifully told and sometimes disturbing tale will intrigue as it reaches its dramatic conclusion’

   Bella

   ‘I loved it … so good!’

   CARRIE HOPE FLETCHER

   ‘I cannot compare this to anything I’ve ever read. You will fall in love with this book’

   EMMA BLACKERY

   ‘Someone should make this into a film’

   LUKEISNOTSEXY

   Never enough words to thank the superlative Sophie Wright – actress, mermaid, cake baker, dream maker.

   I got a whole world where you’ll never find me.

   (‘Yours’, Gaspard Royant, feat. Marie-Flore)

   Contents

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   Dear Reader,

   READ. THIS. BOOK.

   I am told by the various desperate internet searches I conducted late at night for ‘h0W d0 U WRiTe a BlO0DY FOREWORD??!!?’ that my purpose in life for the next few minutes is to convince you to read this book. So read it. There. I’m done! Time for a well-earned break, don’t you think?

   Maybe not …

   Over the course of this introduction, I will try to explain why you should read this book but I mean … you bloody bought the thing! Why wouldn’t you read it?! Don’t you want your money’s worth?! WHAT IS MY PURPOSE HERE?!

   Okay calm. I feel like having an internal written crisis over my own existence won’t better your chances of perusing this book so here goes …

   I first met Caroline Smailes, the author of this here wonderful novel, on September 5th 2014 in Highbury Fields, London. I was wearing an awful bandana in a last-ditch attempt to look vaguely artsy - an area in which, aesthetically at least, I am sorely lacking. I was nervous. So nervous in fact that my witless 20-year-old self thought he could woo a fantastic writer with a simple slice of carrot cake from a tearoom around the corner. Why was I prepared to embarrass myself like this, you ask? Well, because I’d fallen in love with Caroline’s book, and I wanted to convince her to let me and my friend Josh make it into a film. (Somehow, we managed it!)

   I’d fallen in love with The Drowning of Arthur Braxton because, as I had discovered while frantically devouring the book on a flight across Australia, it’s not like anything else I’ve ever read. Its 371 pages unfurl as an entrancing, hyper-real, tender modern fairy tale, a vivid picture of modern life and its idiosyncrasies which simultaneously retells and interweaves a series of Greek myths. The characters are unforgettable, partly due to the extensive research Caroline did with children and teenagers, and partly because (as you can tell when reading it) so much of this novel is so personal to her own experience. It’s real, or at least elements of it must be and they are brought together in a package which I know could not have been delivered better by anybody else.

   One of the things that spoke to me most is Braxton’s honest depiction of teenage boys. Let’s face it: teenage boys are, for want of a better word, yucky. They’re often portrayed in quite a sanitised way in YA books, but Arthur’s internal monologue is unflinchingly potty-mouthed and sex-obsessed. Caroline has, whether she likes this element of Arthur’s character or not, captured the male teenage condition like no other YA writer. But despite his filthy psychobabble, Arthur is always sympathetic, a good kid confused by puberty, the pressures of patriarchal society and, ultimately, his desperation to fit in.

   And then there’s Laurel: the novel’s secondary protagonist. From the title of the book you wouldn’t even know she exists, but there’s nothing I can say to capture how much love I have for her character. Her story is one of heartbreak and loss and pain, but it is perfect. She is perfect.

   I think the reason why I (and so many other readers) have found Arthur and Laurel so compelling is simple. It’s because Caroline truly understands young people. When I wandered into the aforementioned Highbury Fields, bandanered and bewildered, she did not look down on me. She did not prejudge me because I had a business strategy based on cake. She had faith in me, and she trusted my creative vision, even though I was 20 years old and nervous. She understood. And that’s why Arthur and Laurel are so real. Because Caroline understands the power of speaking truthfully to her readers. Her stories and characters reek of reality; they stink of anecdote and experience. In a world where celebrities are desperate to hide imperfection; where artists and writers scramble to be seen as being on some higher realm of consciousness where they alone have insight, she is real. She speaks to us, and she listens. This is so important. This is why she deserves your time and attention.

   The essential message of The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is (to me) that people seek happiness in things that will never fulfil them. In power and fear, booze and sex, popularity, money and change. It is Arthur, and Arthur alone who seeks that which can save you: love, helping others and facing your fears. It’s a message that the world needs desperately, and it is for this reason that I need you to read this book; it is for this reason that I’m making this novel into a film. I love this story. I loved it when I devoured it in 4 hours on an aeroplane. I loved it the seventeenth time I redrafted my script. And I love it now, imploring you to read it. So what are you waiting for? Your life’s about to be changed forever!

   READ! THIS! BOOK!

   Luke Cutforth

   Director, The Drowning of Arthur Braxton

   I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you just kill me?’

   And I’ll mean it. I’ll wish he would.

   He’ll say, ‘No point, you’re going to die within the year anyway.’

   And I’ll say, ‘What?’

   And he’ll say, ‘Dead, within a year.’

   But right now I’m running, sweating like that fat bloke who drinks cans of Diamond White in the bus stop – down the road, around the corner, over the sand dunes and onto the beach.

   ’Cause it was Mum who first told me about the advert. She’d been queuing to buy a pound of mince from the butcher and spotted it on the corkboard. I’d just that second walked in from school when my mum handed me the advert, said it’d be a nice little job for me and something that I could squeeze in between school and looking after my little brothers.

   ‘You never took it down from the corkboard?’ I asked.

   ‘I didn’t want no other bugger getting it,’ Mum said, then we laughed.

   The advert’s for a part-time job, for someone to take the money off folk wanting to see the water-healers at The Oracle, the public baths on the seafront. ‘Apply in person’, and Mum said that I’d best hurry. And ’cause I’m a good girl and ’cause I always do what I’m told, I’m running like a mental over the sand and sweating like that fat bloke, to try and get this job.

   The Oracle had been a community swimming baths, had been around for years, then it closed down and started being derelict. The local council had put it up for sale and that’s when some out-of-town folk bought it. They said that the Males 1st Class pool was built over a spring that was full of magic water. It’s the same water that does that holy well up the hill, the one all them religious poorly folk from all over the world travel to. They reckoned the water had healing powers, I mean there’s people who’ll swear the water made their diseases disappear. None of us local folk knew the spring went under the Males 1st Class pool, but those out-of-town folk did and they bagged themselves a right bargain. That’s when the swimming baths changed its name and started charging loads of money for folk to go in.

   Apparently, someone was once cured of being fat and that’s why every local lass pays their weekly subs to have a float. I’ve never been in before, but Mum and her friends are regulars. There’s three water-healers who work there. They’re local celebrities; they never pay for nowt in the shops, mainly because everyone thinks they’ll be cursed if they’re ever anything but ridiculously nice when the water-healers are around. They’re like those baddies in the second Superman movie, those three that were banished from Krypton in the big mirror prison that shattered, letting them come to Earth via the Moon and be proper terrifying. It’s our Bill’s favourite-ever film, so I must have watched it at least a million times. Well Ursa, the female baddie, looks exactly like one of the water-healers, the one who goes by the name of Madame Pythia, and then there’s Martin Savage, the main male water-healer, who’s a bit like General Zod, the one who liked to say ‘Kneeeel before Zod’ in the film. The other one, the one that would be Non, is an old man, known as Silver. He’s said to be quite nice. He refuses to give bad news when he picks up some psychic energy mid-heal; instead he bursts out crying and tells the poor customer to run for their lives.

   If I’m honest, I’m a bit scared of The Oracle and the water-healers, I mean I’ve heard stories from Mum about all these local people who’ve had their now torn apart ’cause the water-healers have told them that they have nowt good in their future, that their futures are set to be proper rubbish and they can’t ever be healed. Me, I’d prefer not to know. All I want in my future is to work hard for the next two years and then to get into college, maybe even go to university and train to be a teacher. I’d like to be one of them teachers that makes a difference, ’cause they ‘proper understand’ kiddies. I don’t want some nutter putting their hands on me and telling me I can’t be healed and my dreams won’t be coming true and I’m best off jumping off the pier. My English teacher says I’ve the brains and I’m used to being around kids, what with being the oldest of seven kids by four different waste-of-space dads, ’cause even though Mum’s proper useless at picking nice blokes, she’s proper perfect at getting pregnant.

   So, I’m running through the sand and up the steps onto the seafront. I can see The Oracle. It’s a massive mansion of a building that’s all orange and yellow like a bumblebee that’s transformed into a building, but really we all know it’s still a bumblebee. There’s fancy stained-glass windows and a clock tower that chimes out every hour, even though it’s something like seventeen minutes slow. There’s three wooden doors in, for the three different water-healers and the three different baths, but mainly people make their appointments through the posh door, the one that leads to Madame Pythia’s pool. But even when it’s sunny, the place still freaks me out.

   I get to the metal gate and I can see the main man-healer, Martin Savage (General Zod), sitting on the stone steps leading up to the Males 1st Class entrance. He’s got a cigarette in one hand, a bacon butty in the other and the zip of his shell-suit top’s undone, showing off his hairy belly.

   ‘Hi,’ I say.

   ‘Hi,’ he says. He smiles and I’m thinking, Kneeeel before Zod.

   ‘I’ve come about the job,’ I say, handing him the advert that my mum’s ripped off the corkboard in the butchers.

   ‘You’re not what I expected,’ Martin Savage says. ‘How old are you?’ Martin Savage asks.

   ‘Fourteen,’ I say.

   ‘You got a boyfriend?’ Martin Savage asks.

   ‘No,’ I say.

   ‘Got any experience?’ Martin Savage asks.

   ‘No,’ I say. ‘But I learn fast,’ I say.

   He smiles (Kneeeel before Zod), then he flicks his ciggie butt onto the pavement, stands and walks up the steps and through the open wooden door into The Oracle. I don’t know what to do so I start kicking the tips of my DMs against one of the steps.

   ‘What’s your name?’ a voice asks.

   I look up and the woman one, Madame Pythia, is standing at the top of the steps, all elegant and mysterious. She walks down the steps, without making a sound, so I reckon that she must have no shoes on, but her violet dress is long and flowy.

   ‘Laurel,’ I say. ‘I’ve come about the job,’ I say.

   ‘So Martin tells me,’ she says, she stops. She looks me up, she looks me down. ‘You’re pretty,’ she says.

   ‘Thank you,’ I say.

   ‘Can you start now?’ she asks and when I nod she begins telling me all that I need to know about my hours and expected duties at The Oracle.

   ‘I’m to work every night after school, from four until eight. Madame Pythia reckons that’s the busiest times. They open at two, but they’ve got their cleaner, Maggie, covering until I get there,’ I tell Mum.

   ‘What about weekends?’ Mum asks. Mum’s sitting on the sofa, a can of Diamond White in one hand, a ciggie in the other.

   ‘They’re open from two until eight, but then I’ve got to do full days and nights three days every month when Madame Pythia is “absorbed of everyone’s sins”,’ I say.

   ‘You what?’ Mum says.

   ‘I’ve no idea, the woman’s cuckoo, Mum,’ I say. ‘I’m to take money, check appointments, sit at a desk in the Males 1st Class reception and pretend like I’m hard as nails and scary.’

   Mum laughs. She pushes her ciggie butt into the almost-empty can.

   ‘Piece of piss, our Laurel, and you get paid for doing it. Don’t know how I’ll manage with the kids without you, though,’ Mum says.

   ‘We can give it a go for a bit, Mum, see how it all works out. Two pounds fifty pence an hour, cash in hand, that’ll really help out,’ I say and Mum nods. Mum’s all about the money.

   And I reckon that the pay’s okay for the job I’m doing. I mean I don’t tell Mum, but really I think that working at The Oracle is going to be better for me than being at home looking after my brothers. The youngest is two, Sammy he’s called, and he’s a proper handful, into everything, and I spend all my time running after him and stopping him from climbing out windows. Madame Pythia even said that she’s okay with me doing my homework at my desk in reception. ’Course I don’t tell Mum that, mainly ’cause I don’t want her thinking that I’m having it too easy, and ’cause it’s almost too good to be true. I’m going to be able to do all my homework while I’m at work. I’ll be able to read books and hear myself think. I reckon it’s possibly the best job in the world.

   When I get to really thinking about it, I don’t even know how I got the job. Mum reckons it’s fate, that it was meant to be, but I don’t even know if I believe in all that sort of stuff.

   It doesn’t take long before I realise that most of the people who come to The Oracle are desperate, I mean proper desperate. It’s only my second day, I mean I’ve only been at my desk for fifteen minutes and I’m trying to figure out algebra, but Elsie Hughes has turned up sobbing. My mum and Elsie used to be best mates, before Mum shagged Elsie’s brother and got pregnant with our Sammy.

   ‘I don’t have an appointment, Laurel,’ she says.

   ‘Who do you want to see?’ I ask.

   There are three pools, Males 1st Class, Males 2nd Class and Females, and each of the water-healers works from one pool. Men or women can go in the male pools, it’s not strict, just has them labels ’cause they’re carved in stone over the entrance doors. I think it used to be a lot stricter in the old days. Only Madame Pythia’s pool has water direct from the spring in it, the other pools have a mix of local water and seawater and magic water. That’s why proper poorly people tend to go to Madame Pythia for healing.

   ‘I need to see Madame Pythia,’ Elsie Hughes says, wiping snot on her red coat sleeve. Elsie’s a bit plump and her hair’s all scruffy, with some of it still in rollers. She’s holding a plastic bag with a blue towel not quite fitting in it.

   I look at Madame Pythia’s appointments, I shake my head.

   ‘Soz, Elsie,’ I say. ‘She’s booked solid for the next two days.’ I turn the pages and look at Silver’s bookings. ‘Silver’s got a cancellation in fifteen minutes,’ I say.

   She stops her crying. I think she might have been holding her breath.

   ‘Okay,’ she says, sighing. Then she moves to stand outside. I see her taking a ciggie from a blue packet and cupping her hands round it. She’s trying to light it but her whole body’s proper shaking.

   I watch her. I mean I’m supposed to be doing my homework, but something about the way she shakes, something about how desperate she is to light that ciggie, something about the way she stares down to the stone steps, makes me want to cry with her. I’ve never seen anyone that sad before. I mean Mum’s been in floods of crying, especially after one of her loser boyfriends has dumped her, but there’s nothing deep about her tears. I’ve always known that she’ll be out down The Swan on the pull the following night. Mum’s bed’s never empty for long. But with Elsie Hughes, her pain’s different. It’s like it’s all the way around her and covering her like a shower curtain. I think she might be trapped and I think she might be desperate for someone to make her better.

   I hear Silver coming. He always whistles the same tune. I think it’s from an old film but I don’t know him well enough yet to ask.

   ‘Elsie Hughes is your next appointment,’ I say to Silver, pointing out the door to Elsie.

   Silver looks at Elsie Hughes and frowns. He walks out the wooden door but I can still hear them talking.

   ‘You going to run away again?’ he asks Elsie Hughes.

   ‘No, Silver, I’m hoping you can help me last a bit longer,’ she says to him.

   Silver starts whistling again. I hold my breath until they’ve gone down the steps and they’ve turned left towards the Females bath entrance.

   It’s been nearly a week now and I’m proper shattered. I’ve got no energy and I feel proper sad inside. There’s so much pain and upset in the air in The Oracle. Some days I’ve wished I was wearing my fluffy pink earmuffs. Apparently that’s normal. And that’s why Madame Pythia came in earlier to tell me that part of my job was to take a weekly swim in the Males 1st Class pool. She said the spring water would take away all the weight I’d absorbed during my first week here. That was a couple of hours ago.

   Now I’m practically being carried by Silver and Martin. They’ve each got me under one of my arms and my DMs are off the ground. I’m worried that they can see my knickers ’cause my dress is silly short and with the dragging it’s going up and up. I’m practically making tiny running steps in the air as they take me to Madame Pythia.

   She’s standing next to the wooden steps going down into the deep end of the pool. Martin and Silver let me go, my knees buckle, and I fall to the mosaic floor.

   ‘You’re being ridiculous, Laurel, this is for your own good, and hiding—’ Madame Pythia says.

   ‘I wasn’t hiding,’ I say, and then, ‘I don’t have a swimsuit.’

   ‘No swimsuits allowed,’ Madame Pythia says.

   I feel sick. I don’t like my body. I don’t like the hairs, I don’t like my tiny titties. I don’t like how the three of them are staring at me, waiting for me to strip down to starkers.

   ‘Strip, or Martin’ll do it for you,’ Madame Pythia says, and then, ‘I know this is making you uncomfortable, but there’s no other way. Let the water help you, Laurel.’

   I look to Martin Savage and he licks his lips. I can’t let him be touching my skin, I can’t let him be getting that close to me. There’s something about him that I don’t like, there’s something about him that makes my stomach do hula-hoops.

   ‘Can I change in there?’ I ask, pointing to the blue changing cubicles that line the side of the pool. I like their pink-and-white stripy curtains.

   ‘Strip, now. It’s for the best, it has to be now. Please, Laurel,’ Madame Pythia says. Her voice is gentle, yet firm. Her voice, her eyes, they make me trust her. I trust that this needs to be done, but still Martin Savage is staring and I hate that he’s staring.

   So I do what Madame Pythia asks me to do. I do it because I want this job, I need this job and, if I’m honest, I want the pain and sadness to go away. I start undoing the buttons of my little flowery dress. I slip out of my DMs ’cause they’re never done up tight, I let my dress fall to the floor. I fumble trying to undo my bra at the back. It used to be Mum’s but it don’t fit her no more. I’m still rubbish with the catch. I take my bra off, let it fall to the floor and I cross my arms over my titties so that Martin Savage and Silver can’t see my nipples. I feel stupid.

   ‘Now your panties,’ Martin Savage says.

   I do as I’m told. I feel their eyes on me and my little-girl nipples. I wish I had big brown nipples like Mum.

   ‘Get in the water,’ Madame Pythia says. I look at Silver and he nods his head.

   I walk to the edge of the pool, not sure whether to put my hands over my titties or my fanny, and grab the metal handrail. I take the wooden steps slowly, worrying that I’m going to slip and drown and Mum’ll always be wondering why I’ve died swimming with my titties out.

   One, two and my feet are in the water. It’s icy. It nips at my breathing. Three, four and the water’s to my waist. I hate cold water; I’m shaking already and can’t stop myself from wondering why on earth I even thought about getting a job with these nutters.

   ‘Swim,’ Madame Pythia says.

   ‘Swim?’ I ask. She nods.

   I let go of the metal handrail and I flop forward into the cold water. I hold my breath and I flap my arms about. It’s ages since I’ve been swimming.

   ‘Swim,’ Madame Pythia says again. I don’t look at her or Silver or Martin Savage. I look down through the water; the white tiles are too far away for my toes to touch. I look to the shallow end, I see the wooden stairs, and I reckon that I’ll swim to there and then out.

   I swim badly. Mum never could afford the lessons and the ones I had with the school were pretty basic and more about avoiding being drowned by Sheldon Frances.

   ‘I’ll do it,’ Martin Savage says. I think that’s what he says. I look up with water splashing on my face, dripping from my fringe, and I see that he’s undoing his jeans. I feel sick. I’m going to throw up into the water and I know that’ll get me in proper trouble off Madame Pythia. I don’t want him near me, I don’t want him with his willy near me. I start to panic. I flap my arms up and down through the water, trying to make me go faster, trying and trying. But the more I flap my arms, the more it feels like I’m being pulled underwater. It’s like the water’s trying to stop me escaping and it feels like there’s fingers grabbing my ankles and pulling me down. The water’s filling my mouth and my ears and covering my head and I want to scream. I think I’m dying, I’m definitely sinking.

   And that’s when I hear Madame Pythia.

   ‘Stay calm, Laurel, let the water help you,’ she says.

   And that’s when I feel his arms around my waist. I try to kick him but my legs aren’t working like I need them to work and them fingers are still squeezing my ankles. He pulls me to the side, the fingers let go of my ankles, and then he puts his hands on my naked bum cheeks and pushes me up. Silver’s standing on the edge of the pool. He drags me out from the water and onto the mosaic tiles.

   Madame Pythia is next to me. ‘You need to trust,’ she says.

   I nod. I know she’s right. I know that it’s important that I prove to Madame Pythia that I can do my job, that I trust in both her and in the water. I roll so that I’m sitting up, I’m not at all graceful, then I shuffle to the edge of the pool and lower myself into the water again.

   I hold onto the side. I turn, I look at Martin Savage. He’s still in the water. He’s still naked. He smiles.

   ‘Lie back and float,’ Madame Pythia says. I nod, then I lie back and push my feet off the wall of the swimming pool. I feel Martin’s hands under my back, I try not to think about his touching me, instead I trust, instead I ignore his fingers stroking and prodding. I float, and I float some more.

   And that’s when something changes. I swear that I feel the air changing, I feel the pain and the upset fading and fading some more. I relax, I mean I proper relax, I let the water guide me and I smile a proper smile.

   And at that very moment, I feel like nothing bad exists in the world and I feel the happiest I’ve ever felt.

   And when Martin comes to my desk later, he hands me an iced bun and a can of Diet Coke.

   ‘Sorry, pet,’ he says. ‘It was mad in there, hope we didn’t scare you. Me and Silver were trying to help.’ And he smiles and I think he means it, so I smile back.

   ‘Thanks,’ I say, taking the gifts from him. The last thing I need is awkward stuff at my place of work. I like that he’s being kind.

   ‘It’s this place,’ he says, holding his arms out wide, ‘it brings out the weird in all of us.’ Then he laughs.

   I laugh too.

   ‘I feel so much better,’ I say.

   ‘It’s the water, pet,’ Martin says and then he sits down on the edge of my desk. ‘Is there anything you’ve seen so far that’s not made sense?’ he asks. His voice is all gentle and caring and nice.

   I think for a minute or two. ‘I don’t understand how you learned how to do everything,’ I say. ‘I mean, it’s like magic.’ I sound silly. Martin laughs.

   ‘I was born this way, pet. I was picked on for being different, I never fit in no place …’ His voice trails off. ‘Bit like you,’ he says. He leans over and strokes my shoulder. I nod but I don’t really understand what he’s saying.

   ‘You got any friends?’ he asks.

   I shake my head. ‘No time, with school and the kids.’

   ‘Well, let’s us be friends,’ he says and he smiles. He moves a little bit closer, his leg touches mine. ‘So what you up to?’ he asks, pointing at the book on my desk.

   ‘Just reading,’ I say.

   ‘You like books?’ he asks and I nod. He leans across me, his chest in my face. I breathe in. He picks up my book and looks at the title. ‘Clever as well as pretty,’ he says.

   I feel myself blushing. I try to stop the red but I can’t.

   ‘So, we’re friends?’ he asks, putting down my book. I don’t know what to say, I nod. ‘Good,’ he says, ‘because I’d hate you not to like me.’ And then he stands up, goes outside and has a ciggie. I watch him, he’s all smiles and he waves at me as he collects his next appointment and takes her to the Males 2nd Class pool.

   And that’s when I get to figuring that I’ve been silly and really Martin’s nice and mainly he just has to put on an act for all the women who come here just to see him. He’s popular, and I should feel happy that he wants to be my friend.

   No one knows how old Madame Pythia is. Her forehead’s covered in lines. Mum says it’s from all the scowling she does, but I think that’s just Mum being bitter. She doesn’t really like women much, especially the ones with money.

   It’s not long before I start to understand how all the water-healing works and why Madame Pythia’s the way that she is. It’s all ’cause Madame Pythia believes that she’s the jug (or something like that) for all those who’ve sinned. She says she’s some kind of a working class Messiah, a prophet, and a massive absorber of all that surrounds her. She says that’s why it’s her penance, and that every third weekend of the month Madame Pythia gets to be ill for three whole days.

   Every third weekend of the month sees The Oracle shut down to darkness. Locals know not to attempt an appointment. Anyone who approaches the bathhouse during those days is said to bring about a curse and ‘the death of a loved one will be inevitable’. There’s even a sign saying just that that’s pinned to each of the three wooden doors for those three days. Silver told me that it was known, that it had once happened to the great-grandfather of Edna Williams. And that’s why for those three days of every month Martin Savage and Silver get to escape to their own lives, they’re free to be and do whatever they wish. It’s not like that for me. It’s in my job description that I’m to stay over in The Oracle for them days to nurse Madame Pythia back to her proper strength.

   Yesterday, Madame Pythia said, ‘My three-day illness is my penance for the spilling of secrets and my absorbing it through my healing hands.’ That’s when she raised her palms up towards the ceiling and I sort of nodded, not really sure what she was going on about. She was using words like ‘cleansed’ and ‘purged’ and I didn’t have a clue what she was meaning. That’s the problem with working here, it’s sometimes like they’re talking foreign and I’m not sure what the right response should be. Madame Pythia’s told me not to worry about anything and that everything I see and hear is perfectly natural, that everything happens as it should. She says that all the healing and the taking on of other people’s problems has to come out of her in one way or another.

   But now I’m here, in The Oracle with her and I’m freaking out. The thing is, I’m now the person who has to watch her floating naked in the Males 1st Class pool, making sure that she doesn’t drown. The responsibility’s doing my head in. What if I go for a wee and that’s when she drowns? And I’m not sure how I feel about watching her floating about in the pool with her titties out. She’s not like my mum, she doesn’t have no saggy belly and her titties point up to the ceiling even when she’s lying down.

   Mum says that Madame Pythia is off her head and it’s pretty obvious that she suffers from migraines when it’s her lady time of the month. ’Course I don’t say anything like that to Madame Pythia, I mean, that woman’s probably the scariest person in the world.

   So instead I’m stuck here, in The Oracle, for the next three days, cleaning up sick from the pool and trying not to hurl my guts up. For the next three days I’ll be trapped in the dark and Silver’s told me that I’m not to be making any noise and not to even say one word out loud. He reckons that even the smallest noise will set Madame Pythia off into a bad place. Silver said that the more Madame Pythia floats undisturbed, then the less cleaning up I’d have to do. He’s said I should try and sleep on the wooden folding seats in the changing cubicles by the pool, but maybe keep the stripy curtains open. He’s said that at some point Madame Pythia’ll climb out and lie on the mosaic tiles and that’s when I should try and catch myself an hour’s rest. But what if I sleep too much and she rolls in the pool and drowns and everyone says I killed her and they put me in one of them women’s prisons? I’m going to try not to sleep for three days. I got myself some ProPlus.

   The job itself, the working in The Oracle, hasn’t interfered much with my schoolwork. But today, ’cause I’m having to be here all day, Mum’s phoned the school and said that I’m sick. I get paid for every hour I’m here. Mum cares more about the money I’m paid than my schoolwork, and the school don’t care because they expect it of my sort. Me, well I want an easy life, but mainly I’m hoping that I can get into college and prove them all wrong. I want to learn more about English, ’cause I have all these thousands of stories running around my head and I’ve been writing them down in a pink notebook that Silver bought me last week. Most girls my age are all about Sugar and Just 17, but I’m not. I’m not wanting to marry Mark Owen and I’m not interested in his favourite colour. I’m all about books that have stories that have been here forever, I’m all about words and fainting women. Madame Pythia has a million books upstairs in her flat. She’s said that I can borrow them whenever I want. Mum doesn’t get me, probably because she has my brothers to look after and they’re right little buggers and Mum had left school by the time she was my age. I mean she’s not that old now, she’s only twenty-nine, but you’d never think it looking at her. I think that ’cause my mum’d been pregnant with me and had to drop out of school, well I guess it was my fault that Mum’s turned out like she has. I mean she could have killed me in her belly or given me away, but she didn’t. Mum gave up everything just for me.

   So, I do what I have to do to make her happy. And that’s why I’m here cleaning up sick and trying not to hurl and that’s why I’m letting my mum have every penny that I earn.

   As the weeks go by I’m starting to get into a routine, knowing who to expect on what days and having my favourite clients, clients I proper look forward to seeing. There’s this woman who comes here to The Oracle every Monday evening. She has a block booking of the six o’clock slot to see Madame Pythia. She’s called Ada Harvey. She’s probably thirty but she’s got what Mum would call ‘an old face’. I think that’s because she was ill a few years ago and is still recovering. Ada knows my name and she’s really kind. If she’s baked on the Sunday afternoon, she’ll bring me a scone or a fairy bun wrapped in a piece of kitchen roll, with a bit of sellotape wrapped around it to keep it fresh and clean. Sometimes she asks me to go in with her when she sees Madame Pythia, but Madame Pythia won’t let me. She says it’s no good for me to learn the ways of the water-healers. She says that I don’t have no gift and that I won’t be around long enough to care how it works. That’s fine with me, I mean I’m getting a bit fed up of all the flashes of titties and willies I get to see around here. I think it’s put me off for life.

   Ada Harvey’s just come in.

   ‘Laurel, you know how I’ve been having trouble with the hubbie since that last family heal?’ she says.

   I nod but I didn’t know, not really.

   ‘Well I was making my scones and I ended up flabbergasted,’ she says and hands me a scone wrapped in kitchen roll with pictures of cats on skateboards on it. I look from the cartoon images, up to her. She continues, ‘He’s only gone and suggested that we should come to The Oracle as a couple, try again. I think he’s intrigued.’

   ‘A lot of people are,’ I say. ‘Thanks for my scone,’ I say.

   ‘To be honest, I think he’s worried that he could have done more to save his mam. She died from breast cancer fifteen years ago,’ Ada Harvey says.

   Then the door to the Males 1st Class pool swings open. Mrs Winter comes out. She’s sobbing. She doesn’t even look at us, she just carries on sobbing and walking proper slowly out through the main entrance and down the steps to the seafront.

   ‘Looks like she had a good session,’ Ada Harvey says, pointing after Mrs Winter. ‘You know we had that family healing a while back?’ Ada asks. I shake my head. ‘Must have been before your time.’

   ‘Was it all that you expected it to be?’ I ask, not really knowing the right words to use.

   ‘Oh Laurel, it went okay, just okay. The hubbie was a little disappointed. I think he expected to see some phenomenon, like Madame Pythia walking on water or something,’ Ada Harvey says and then laughs. I laugh too. ‘Do you know how it all works?’ Ada Harvey asks. I shake my head. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘we all sat around the pool, with our feet in the water, while Madame Pythia chatted. She assured him that his mam was always with him, that she was no longer in pain and that she was clutching her right breast. She tried to explain that at his mam’s level of purification, that she can be in seven places at once. At this the hubbie laughed. So, Madame Pythia told him how recently he’d had trouble with the volume on his car stereo. She told him that it was his mam who’d turned it down. The hubbie went rather pale. I remembered as well how the volume of music in his car kept reducing, to a normal level. I mean the hubbie likes to play his music so loud when he drives, but each time he fiddled the volume to high it’d go straight back down quiet. Of course, he assumed that there was something wrong with his stereo. He even took the car to the garage. It was a newish car, a newish stereo and the garage could find no fault. And still, the volume would turn down. So Madame Pythia tells the hubbie how his mam hates loud music.’ Ada Harvey pauses.

   I’ve unravelled the kitchen roll from my scone while she’s been talking. Now I’m lifting it to my mouth. ‘She’s good like a witch, isn’t she?’ I say.

   ‘Exactly like a witch,’ Ada Harvey says and laughs. ‘Madame Pythia told us that our son was specially gifted. Of course I smiled. The hubbie said something about how she was playing with my ego and with my emotions. She told us of how in a previous life, he was actually my sister. Then Madame Pythia told the hubbie to strip naked and get in the pool. While he did she described his character perfectly.’ Again Ada Harvey laughs, then pauses, watching me devouring the scone.

   ‘Are you hungry Laurel?’ she asks.

   I nod.

   ‘Do they not feed you here?’ she asks, looking me up and down. ‘I’ll bring you more next week,’ she says, placing her hand on my arm. ‘Madame Pythia said how the hubbie was moody and stubborn. She explained that this was because he carried the spirit of a policeman who had died young, who had not accepted his physical death. She told him how, although this spirit was largely positive, he was guiding the hubbie down certain paths, that it was the spirit’s inability to accept his death that was causing the moods, the stubbornness and resentment within the hubbie. She said that’s why he needed to let the water heal him.’

   ‘And your husband is a policeman too?’ I ask.

   ‘Yes, Laurel, the spirit must have guided him into that profession.’ Ada Harvey laughs and then continues. ‘Then, Madame Pythia asked if we would like to see the spirits that were with us. My husband shouted yes, with perhaps too much enthusiasm. And so the spirits appeared in the water. I swear I saw their faces popping up – one, then another and then another. But my husband was blocked and could not allow his eyes to see. He saw nothing and that’s what’s making him angry. He thinks I’m making it all up.’

   ‘Madame Pythia told me that there are some who are blind,’ I say. Then the door swings open and Madame Pythia stands tall in her violet dress.

   Madame Pythia shouts, ‘Laurel, show Ada Harvey in.’

   ’Course I’m not even sure what Madame Pythia’s real name is, I mean she must have a first name, I mean no parent’d be that cruel and name a child ‘Madame’. I think I heard Silver call her Veronica or maybe it was Sally. I didn’t quite catch it, but what I do know is that Madame Pythia delivers her oracles in a proper mental state. If Silver told me she’d been popping an E or seven, I’d believe him. I mean I’ve watched her from the viewing gallery and sometimes she even sounds like she’s talking foreign.

   Ada Harvey’s left and today, right now, I’m seeing stuff that’s making my stomach do hula-hoops. I mean I had a feeling it would when Silver said that I had to cancel his last appointment ’cause him and Madame Pythia were doing a healing together. I mean in all the time I’ve been here nowt like that’s happened before, so my stomach did hula-hoops even before I was seeing what I’m seeing now.

   I’ve sneaked into the Males 1st Class pool. I mean I waited until they’d started their healing, ’cause I know how they get all into it and they don’t know what’s going on about them. I’m trying to be invisible right next to the changing cubicles and I reckon it’s working, ’cause no one’s shouted at me to bugger off yet. Madame Pythia, Silver and some lass I’ve not seen before are starkers, I mean they’re fully naked in the water.

   But none of that even matters. ’Cause the shape of Silver’s face has just changed.

   I mean it’s altered, I swear he’s stopped being Silver and, apparently, instead he’s a bloke called Simon who the lass in the water once shagged in a former life. I’m thinking this is like some dodgy remake of Ghost and trying not to freak.

   A few minutes ago Madame Pythia was giving it all about showing the way to ‘reverting the body of his spirit from a former life’ and then Silver’s face stopped being Silver’s face. The lass who was being healed, her and Silver were treading water next to each other in the middle of the pool. Next thing, the lass let out the biggest scream ever and swam through the water to hug Silver. Silver hugged her back and then they snogged, with tongues, proper snogging. Madame Pythia had to pull them apart. That’s when I started giggling, ’cause that’s what I sometimes do when I’m freaked out. And that’s why I’m blinking now and blinking some more to make sure that it’s not my eyes playing tricks.

   I mean I’m tired, it’s been a long shift, it’s the last appointment of the day, but none of my blinking’s making any difference. And now a proper beautiful white light’s surrounding Madame Pythia. Again, I’m blinking and, again, I’m blinking a bit more. I even use my fingers to stretch my eyes wide open. Maybe I’m confused or maybe I’m coming down with chicken pox. I know I’m not though, least I don’t think I am. I wonder if it’s the vapours off the water, I wonder if they mess with your head and make you see stuff that can’t possibly be real. None of this makes sense to me.

   ’Cause now Madame Pythia’s face is changing too. Ada Harvey said Madame Pythia could do that, she said how sometimes Madame Pythia allowed several spirits to ‘manifest on her ugly face’. Ada said that one of the spirits she’d seen was her grandmother who’d passed when Ada was a little lass. But this is the first time I’m seeing it with my own eyes. I’m shaking, I’m so confused. I mean it’s crazy, but I don’t think I ever thought it was real. I mean, if I’m honest, I thought the folk who came here were all nutters, that they saw and heard what they needed to see and hear to make their lives better. But now, I mean right now, I’m not sure what’s real and what’s not no more.

   The other day I asked Madame Pythia why so many people came to The Oracle and she said, ‘After a long period of spiritual sleep and materialism, humans are finally awakening and opening their minds to new experiences.’ And then, ‘Humans are beginning to realise what I have known since birth, that materialism is not the answer.’ I remember nodding my head, not really listening ’cause she was going on a bit. I remember thinking she was off her face and wondering why they charged so much for each session, if it wasn’t about the money.

   But that was all before I realised she could do proper freaky shit with her face. My head’s all over the place now and that’s when I hear the lass speaking.

   ‘I have been told that there are dark demons smothering me,’ she says.

   ‘Who spoke such words to you?’ Madame Pythia shouts across the pool. They’ve swam apart a bit while I’ve been freaking out.

   ‘A friend,’ the lass says.

   ‘A friend! A friend! What rot! You should choose your friends with more care and consideration, my dear!’

   I watch as Madame Pythia swims to the lass, lifts her hands and places them on the lass’s face. Madame Pythia then closes her eyes and doesn’t speak a word. I’m looking at the lass, she looks scared. I wish I could help her, but then I remember that she’s paying for this mental stuff.

   ‘Open your eyes,’ Silver says, even though his face isn’t his face still and even though he’s now clutching the edge of the pool opposite me. And that’s when Madame Pythia opens her eyes and turns her head to stare at Silver. She stares for a good few minutes, still with her hands on the lass’s face and by this stage the lass’s sobbing like our Sammy does when he’s had a nightmare.

   Madame Pythia turns back to her.

   ‘I can see clearly, my dear.’

   ‘But I fear that dark demons are there,’ the lass says. She’s still crying but at least the sobbing has stopped now.

   ‘My dear, I will speak only the truth to you. I can see that there are spirits that are dark and that they stay close to you.’

   That’s when the lass gasps. And that’s when I gasp too. Silver stares at me, but it’s like his eyes don’t recognise who I am. He doesn’t speak.

   Madame Pythia continues, ‘Do not have fear, my dear. I can tell you that those spirits are aching, in anguish, in such deep misery. It is true that they are near to you, that they see your energy, but still they cannot touch you. They cannot become you. I can see that you do not recognise the power that you hold within yourself.’

   That’s when the lass falls below the water and that’s when Silver turns back to being Silver, lets go of the edge of the pool and dives under the water to rescue her. He pulls her back above the surface and over to the side of the pool. She’s all spluttering but that doesn’t stop Madame Pythia from continuing with her speech.

   ‘They cannot climb onto you,’ she shouts, she’s treading water and raising both of her arms out of the pool and up towards the ceiling. ‘It is true that they seek to scratch your surface, yet beneath this fragile outer layer there is a vast reservoir of light. Close your eyes, relax, try to draw upon it.’

   Silver’s holding the lass with one arm and clinging to the edge of the pool with his other hand. The lass leans her head back, onto him, then she lets her legs lift up into the water. She’s floating, she looks calm.

   ‘Even if you cannot look into this light within my presence, know that this reservoir will be there to guide you when you are open to accepting that you are deserving of happiness, of goodness.’

   Madame Pythia pauses, she locks eyes with the lass and that’s when Madame Pythia declares, ‘It is time, we must end this session’, and she swims to the side of the pool.

   And that’s when I run to the doors, swing them open and run to my desk. I know I’ve been seen and that I’ll probably get a bollocking later, but it was worth it.

   Next day I’m at my desk, struggling to complete a piece of GCSE coursework. I’m too close to the deadline and that’s making me panic even more. It’s English language, it’s a love story, and mainly I’m struggling ’cause I don’t really think I believe in love. I mean, it’s not like my mum has found her happily-ever-after and it’s not like any of the women who come here are celebrating amazing marriages. Everyone moans about their husbands and their partners and their kids. I don’t think I know anyone who’s in love, I mean not like I read about in all Madame Pythia’s books. And that’s why I’m struggling.

   That’s when Martin comes up to the desk, he’s on a fifteen-minute break before his drop-in sessions start. As usual he sits, then shuffles closer and rests a hand on my shoulder. My stomach hula-hoops and I try to move my chair back a bit without him noticing.

   ‘What you up to?’ he asks.

   ‘Coursework,’ I say. ‘Got to write about love, like I know anything about love.’

   ‘What do you want to know? I’m a bit of an expert,’ he asks, he winks.

   I look at him, I blush because his eyes are that strong and powerful and scary. ‘Everything,’ I say. ‘Don’t reckon I believe in it,’ I say.

   ‘Love exists,’ Martin says. ‘I once knew a woman,’ he says. ‘She was one of my first-ever clients. Gwendolyn Price was her name. She came here for treatment but me and her, well she was my fit. I mean she fitted onto me and I fitted into her and it was different. I know that’s lame and all pathetic and I know that my wife’d have a paddy at me daring to say that me, that the father of her kids, was with the wrong lass. But Gwendolyn was the woman I should have married.’

   I don’t say anything. I pick up my pencil and start making notes. Martin’s still perching on the edge of my desk, but he’s taken his hand off my shoulder.

   ‘Mainly at night when I was lying in bed, when I’d just shagged my wife, well I’d be thinking about Gwendolyn. And I’d be thinking about when I could next be with her. I still loved my wife, but it was clear I wasn’t in love with her. Sometimes I even hated her because she could be a right nasty bitch to me and the kids. But mainly we just ended up shagging because that’s what married folk do and if I did then she’d not be suspecting that I was at it with some person else,’ he says, then he laughs. I laugh too, even though I don’t think he’s funny. ‘What do you think about that?’

   ‘I don’t know,’ I say. I don’t. I mean I look at Martin and I see someone who’s old, he’s like the age my dad probably is. I don’t really understand what he’s trying to tell me. ‘I don’t get it. How do you do that? How can you love, but not be in love?’ I ask.

   ‘Love’s not that black and white, pet,’ he says. ‘I wanted to leave the wife, but it was my kids that kept me and the wife together. I thought that the responsibility I felt towards my kids was more important than the love I felt for Gwendolyn. I reckon that me and the wife, that having kids was the reason why everything started going wrong between us, but we were good parents. Being with Gwendolyn was my only bit of me-time, the only time I could have some fun, away from dull-as-fuck routine,’ he says.

   ‘So what happened?’ I ask, ready with my pencil.

   ‘I couldn’t leave my kids, financial and emotional shit, Gwendolyn got fed up of not having all of me. We ended after a year and I reckon my heart broke,’ he says.

   ‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ’cause I am. He looks sad.

   ‘I still think about her every day,’ he says and he sighs. I’ve not seen him sad before, I feel sad too.

   ‘I reckon that you can fall in and out of love all through your life, but there’s only one person who really fits. And that love, that love trumps all other love. The problem is, that like everything in life, you can blink and you’ll miss your moment,’ he says, and then he’s laughing again.

   I laugh too.

   ‘So Gwendolyn was my first-and-only real affair. And, of course, after losing Gwendolyn,’ he says, ‘that’s when I started resenting my life. I decided I had nothing to lose and now I shag anything with a pulse. If I can’t be with Gwendolyn then I don’t give a fuck about anything else.’

   That’s when I look up at him and he winks and gets down from the edge of the table.

   ‘People have affairs,’ he says, walking towards the main door. ‘Of course they do. And I do my duty as a husband, I’m there for my wife and I’m there for my kiddies. And I love every one of the women I’ve shagged, almost as much as they’ve loved my cock inside them. Everyone’s happy and everyone’s getting a piece of me. But it’s never been like it was with Gwendolyn. I’m just a giving kind of bloke. I shag women and I give them a love that lasts for anything from five to thirty minutes.’ He laughs again, I don’t really understand his joke. ‘What I can do with my cock …’

   He doesn’t finish his sentence and I’m really not sure what he’s trying to tell me about love. I’m feeling even more confused.

   But a bit later, I’m just coming out the toilet after having a wee and he’s waiting. At first I’m wondering why he’s waiting to go in the girl’s toilet but then I get to realising that he’s waiting to see me.

   ‘So when you going to let me take you out?’ he asks.

   ‘Out?’ I ask.

   ‘On a date,’ he says, and I laugh. ‘What’s funny?’ he asks and I think I might have upset his feelings.

   ‘Soz,’ I say, I blush.

   ‘How about the pictures?’ he asks.

   I shake my head, I don’t look at him, I look down at the mosaic tiles. ‘My mum wouldn’t let me,’ I say. And that’s when he walks away.

   ‘I’m in love with you, Laurel,’ he shouts over his shoulder, he laughs as he turns the corner. ‘Think of it as research for your coursework,’ he says.

   And I’m left wondering what that even means.

   ’Course, I’d known that Silver reads palms. I’ve been working six weeks now and I know pretty much everything that goes on. I’m sitting on the stone steps outside the Males 1st Class entrance, reading and loving that it’s a suntrap. I’ve got another one of my little dresses on, Mum treated me, buying it from Miss Selfridges instead of Mark One. It’s got tiny yellow-and-blue flowers on it. I’ve got it hitched up into my knickers. I’m stretching out my legs across the steps and I’ve even taken off my DMs. I’m happy. I hear him whistling. Silver comes and sits next to me.

   ‘Show me your palm,’ he says and I do. I mean I don’t even think twice about it. I like Silver, he’s got kind eyes and he’s bought me a tube of Smarties from the shops every day for the last two weeks. I’m saving the lids, trying to spell out ‘Laurel’, but I’ve not got ‘r’ or ‘u’ yet and I’ve only got one ‘l’. I slide my hand off my open book and hold it up to his face. Silver smiles.

   Silver lifts my palm up close to his eyes. He tilts my palm this way and that way and bends my fingers one by one. He runs his chubby man-fingers over the lines.

   ‘Oh,’ he says.

   ‘What?’ I ask.

   I look at Silver, tears are already falling from his eyes.

   ‘What?’ I ask.

   ‘Run for your life,’ Silver says, letting go of my palm with a deep sob. He steadies himself on the metal railing, trying to get to his feet.

   ‘Silver, tell me,’ I say. I’m terrified.

   ‘I can’t, pet,’ he says. ‘It isn’t what I do. Things happen as they should.’ Then he walks back through the open wooden doors and into The Oracle. I hear him sobbing.

   ‘Silver,’ I shout, dropping my book and getting to my feet. The steps are hot.

   ‘I wouldn’t bother,’ Martin Savage says. I hadn’t seen him coming. I pull at my dress, to make sure that it’s not still tucked in my knickers. He’s at the bottom of the stone steps, dragging on a rolled ciggie. ‘He’ll not tell you if it’s bad.’

   ‘Will you?’ I ask.

   ‘Don’t know if I should, what with you not letting me take you out,’ he says.

   ‘Please,’ I say.

   ‘Okay,’ he says, and then, ‘But you’ll owe me one.’

   He climbs the steps to beside me.

   ‘Sit down, Laurel,’ he says. I do. I don’t want to owe him, but I’m that desperate.

   ‘Give me your palm,’ he says. I do.

   ‘How old are you again, Laurel?’ he asks.

   ‘Nearly fifteen,’ I say.

   ‘You’re pretty,’ he says, stroking his index finger up my fingers and down to the base of my palm. It tickles, I giggle even though I don’t want to giggle. Then he brings my palm up to his mouth and kisses it with his lips. He makes me want to be sick, I don’t like his kisses. ‘Ask Madame Pythia,’ he says.

   ‘Ask her what?’ I say.

   ‘To read your palm, I do tarot.’ He laughs, a low and dirty laugh.

   He lets go of my palm and leans towards me and kisses my cheek. ‘You owe me one, you promised. Nice girls don’t break their promises,’ he says.

   He smells of ciggies and stale beer and he makes my insides hula-hoop. I’ve seen what he likes to do. A couple of nights ago I sneaked up onto the viewing gallery and sat on the back row, on one of them fold-down seats. I was quiet, proper quiet and I watched just what he does to heal the women. I wanted to understand all that stuff he’d said about love. And that’s why I know that Martin Savage’s dirty, I mean he does proper dirty things. The noises he made and the mess they made. If that’s what love is, then I don’t want any of it. And I certainly don’t want him loving me.

   But Martin Savage is used to having women falling at his feet. I mean I’ve seen them all at The Oracle. They’ll be queuing down the steps leading up to the Males 2nd Class pool. Some days the queue goes all the way down and onto the beach. He’s the only one of the water-healers who does a drop-in session every night. I’ve watched when Martin’ll come swaggering along the sand and the women’ll turn into quivering wrecks, dying to take their clothes off and let him swim naked with them in the Males 2nd Class pool. I overheard one of the women saying that after one of her friends had let Martin Savage do things to her in the pool, then she’d been able to have babies. She reckoned that Martin Savage could heal insides and because word’s spread now every woman in the world’s wanting to have a bit of him. It isn’t like that with me. I mean I don’t get why all the women are falling at his feet, and I know that there are some women who’d happily swim to him sitting naked on the edge of the pool and suck on his willy, while he’s huffing and puffing for Wales and trying to say words to heal them.

   So when he kisses me on the cheek, I mean I don’t know how to react. It’s not like I fancy him. I mean he’s old enough to be my dad and I’ve seen where his lips have been. I mean Martin Savage’s probably the kind of bloke Mum would have gone for. He’s married, he’s got kids and he’s a bad bad man. I need him not to love me.

   I turn to look at Martin and he moves in to kiss me on the lips. I pull my head back and bang it on the metal rail.

   ‘My head,’ I say. It hurts like hell.

   Martin Savage gets up, and walks into The Oracle. ‘You promised, you owe me, prick-tease,’ he says.

   Later, I was sitting at my desk when he came over and sat on the edge as usual, bending in right close to look at his appointments in the book.

   ‘I haven’t had a virgin for a couple of years,’ he said. I looked at him, he stared at me.

   At first I thought I’d heard him wrong and so I didn’t say a word back to him. And that’s when he said, ‘You’d better be a virgin. I don’t want to be wasting my time on you. No one likes a filthy whore.’

   ‘I am,’ I said and I blushed again.

   ‘You’re a prick-tease, that’s what you are. We had a deal, you owe me,’ he said, before pushing the appointment book onto the floor and ordering me to pick it up. I didn’t at first, I was looking around to see if anyone was watching. They weren’t. And that’s when he shouted. ‘Pick the fucker up.’

   I bent to pick up the book.

   ‘And the toilets in my changing rooms need cleaning,’ he said, before walking off.

   That was a couple of hours ago and I’ve still not plucked up the courage to go into his changing rooms. I don’t want to be near him, I don’t even want to be here in The Oracle. I told Mum last night, told her about how weird Martin was and how he made me feel and Mum said that I should just grin and bear it. And then she said that I should stop my moaning and be grateful that I had a job and that we needed the money, and if I gave up then she’d have to think twice about whether or not I could go to college.

   So I go to have a look in the Males 2nd Class changing rooms. I push the door open and shout a ‘hello’ but no one replies. I walk around, looking and looking some more, but it all seems to be pretty clean. I mean I know Maggie, the cleaner, was in this morning. I mean she comes in every morning. There’s no towels lying around, the floor isn’t dirty, there’s not even any water on the floor. I’m walking towards the toilet and that’s when I realise that he’s in the changing rooms too.

   ‘Time you let me suck on those little titties of yours,’ he says. I turn. He’s standing in front of the door so there’s no way I can get out. ‘Undo your dress, time to pay up,’ he says.

   ‘I just came to check—’ I say, but he interrupts with, ‘We both know why you came here.’

   ‘You told me to,’ I say.

   ‘You’re not stupid. Take your dress off and stop playing games,’ he says. ‘Do as I say or you’ll get the sack,’ he says. ‘And I’ll make sure no one round here gives you a job,’ he says.

   I start walking towards him, hoping to get around him, hoping for a miracle, a something to make this better. He grabs my arm.

   ‘Get off,’ I say, trying to wriggle away, but that makes him grip harder and pull me in closer.

   ‘I’m going to taste you,’ he says. ‘That’s what lovers do.’

   I feel sick, I’m crying, I want him to stop, I want to be back at my desk, with my book, with the clients, with the appointment book. And that’s when he lets go of my arm and that’s when he opens the door out of the changing room.

   ‘Off you go, prick-tease,’ he says and he slaps my arse as I walk past.

   I’m still crying when I get to the desk. Silver’s there, he’s watching me, but when my eyes meet his he turns away.

   ‘Silver,’ I say, ‘what shall I do?’

   ‘Run for your life,’ Silver whispers, but he carries on walking.

   Next day’s here and Silver’s still ignoring me, like actually not even coming near me, and sending his last clients to ask me questions for him. I don’t know what to do. I mean, I didn’t sleep proper last night, ’cause I kept thinking about all the proper bad things that could happen to me. And I kept thinking about what Martin Savage could have done to me in them changing rooms. I ended up really freaking myself out and making my heart beat funny like I’d been sprinting in a race or something. I tried to talk to Mum this morning, but she said I was just being silly and Silver was probably having a bad day. She even said that Martin’d be a good man to ‘pop my cherry’ as he’d know what he was doing. She’d laughed, like I was being silly for being so scared. I told her I didn’t want to go into work and she got cross. I know not to push it with her, I know she’s thinking I’m just a stupid little girl but I’m not. I know Silver, he’s a kind man, he wouldn’t be being like he’s being unless there was bad stuff he didn’t want to say.

   I had to talk to him, I had to find out what he meant, so I waited until his last client left and I walked into the Females pool. But Silver was having none of it. He barged past me and out the main door.

   ’Course, Martin Savage’s finding it all hilarious. Just now he said that if I showed him my titties he’d talk to Silver for me. And now, I mean I know he’s watching me now. ’Cause I’ve just run off and I’m chasing Silver down the steps, along the seafront and onto the beach. My DMs are rubbish to run in and I’m having to push my dress to my thighs to stop it from flying up and showing everyone my knickers. I can hear Martin Savage’s dirty laugh behind me and that’s when Silver stops walking, turns to me and puts his fingers in his ears.

   And that’s when he shouts at me, ‘Bugger off, Laurel!’

   I know I have to, I don’t want to be upsetting Silver, I think he’s a sort-of friend and I don’t have many of them, so I stop and turn back to The Oracle.

   I can see him, that Martin Savage, as I walk back. He’s like a tiny black fly in front of the huge bumblebee building. I walk slow, much slower than I should, considering there’s a bit of a queue snaking out from the Males 1st Class entrance and when Madame Pythia finds out that I ran off she’ll have a proper fit.

   I’m getting closer to Martin and I can see his nasty face. I don’t like him, not one little bit. He’s a cheating ball of slime, I’ve seen what he does to the women who come here to be healed. They trust him and he’s proper dirty. But the more I give him the evils and the more I refuse to speak to him, the more he seems to like it. I know he thinks I’m playing hard to get, but I’m not. I hate him.

   I walk past Martin Savage and the few women who’ve formed a queue for appointments, but just before I get to the steps, he jumps forward and goes to put an arm around me.

   ‘GET OFF!’ I shout. I think I hear one of the queuing women tut.

   ‘Laurel,’ he says, in a sickly sweet voice, ‘what’s wrong, pet? Has Silver upset you?’

   ‘FUCK OFF!’ I shout, barging past him and knocking shoulders with at least two women in the queue.

   ‘Silly bitch,’ one of them says.

   ‘Got the manners of her mam,’ another says.

   I keep walking through the entrance and that’s when I hear Martin Savage saying, ‘Now, now ladies, leave the poor lass alone. I’ll sort her out later, make sure she’s okay. I reckon she just needs some Martin-loving.’ Then he laughs.

   And although the words he’s saying are sounding all nice and kind, there’s something inside of me that’s screaming for me to run for my life.

   But there’s no time for dwelling, I’ve work to do. I mean, it’s not like I’ve got a choice, I don’t want Madame Pythia having a go, but my head’s all over the place. I’m trying so hard not to stand up from my desk and throw the biggest strop ever. I need Silver to help me, I need to try and talk to him later.

   So, for now, I’m sitting at my desk, my bare toes on the cold mosaic floor, and trying to lose myself in a book. That’s when I feel a young lass’s eyes staring at me. I look up and I blush, ’cause I reckon she’s been standing there for ages and I haven’t even realised.

   I put my book down on my desk. ‘I’m after an appointment?’ she says.

   ‘For when?’ I ask. I flick the pages of the appointment book forward to when there’s some free slots.

   ‘Today?’ she asks. I can hear a quiver in her voice.

   I shake my head, ’cause I know how busy we are, and that’s when I glance up at her and that’s when I catch a look in her eyes. I’ve been working here long enough to know when people are desperate, to know when it’s proper important that they see a healer. This lass needs help, her eyes are pleading with me to help her.

   ‘They’re all booked up, Martin Savage has a drop-in later,’ I say, then, quickly, ‘but Silver’s always good at squeezing in an extra session. If you don’t mind waiting?’

   ‘I really wanted to see Madame Pythia,’ she says, looking down at the mosaic tiles. ‘I’ve heard she’s the best.’ She’s not crying but I reckon she’s not far off. She’s pulling her red hair into a ponytail and looking anywhere but at me. I’m staring at her face, her skin’s white like posh china. She scares me, she’s proper fragile.

   ‘She’s booked up for weeks,’ I say, I’m still staring at her, she’s still looking at the mosaic floor. ‘But Silver’s proper good.’

   She nods and her face does an angry twist. I’ve seen the look before, it’s like the lasses blame me for them not thinking ahead and booking appointments, but there’s something else there too. There’s more to her angry twist than her just being cross with me. This lass is proper desperate.

   ‘What’s your name?’ I ask. ‘To write in my book,’ I say, holding my pencil over Silver’s page.

   ‘Madora Argon. But Maddie, I’m called Maddie,’ she says and her eyes meet mine. She smiles but her eyes don’t.

   ‘Why don’t you wait outside in the sunshine? I’ll ask Silver when he’s likely to fit you in and let you know,’ I say.

   She nods again, turns and walks out the main entrance, she’s dragging her feet and it’s like she’s no energy left and it’s like she’s two hundred years old. I want to tell her that it’ll all be okay, but I don’t know if it will be. I can tell she’s broken, I’m guessing there’s a man involved and then I think about Martin Savage and I feel sick again.

   And that’s when Silver comes to the desk and grabs the appointment book. He’s standing, looking at his appointments, and I’m trying my hardest to explain about Maddie before he walks away. I’m not even sure he’s listening. But then, just when I’m almost finished explaining, Silver throws the book on the floor, walks towards the main entrance and out to where Maddie’s sitting on the steps. I wish I knew what I’d done to make him hate me. I thought he was my friend.

   But mainly, for the last few days, I’ve been trying to talk to Silver and trying to avoid Martin Savage, but it’s been pretty much impossible. Madame Pythia’s already given me a warning for hiding in the Males 1st Class changing rooms and another for not being at my desk in reception. She’s not being mean, her words always sound sad. I’m sure she was crying when she was looking at me earlier.

   Today my black hair’s all flung loose over my shoulders. I think it looks pretty. I’m not doing it for Martin Savage, it’s just ’cause I’ve had it up for a couple of days ’cause our Bill brought back nits from school and it pulls on my scalp when I wear it up too much.

   I’m sitting on the steps outside Males 1st Class, I’m not reading or anything ’cause I’m feeling sick with all the hula-hooping in my belly. That feeling’s with me all the time now, like I’m waiting for that bad thing to happen. It’s not like I can ask Silver to tell me what he saw, no chance at all, ’cause he’s proper ignoring me and still not even buying me Smarties from the shop.

   There’s a couple of people waiting to see Madame Pythia but they’re over talking to someone in Silver’s queue, outside Females.

   ’Course I don’t hear him sneaking up. He’s good at creeping.

   ‘You thought ’bout tying your hair up nice,’ he says.

   I can feel his fingers doing spidery steps running down my arm, up and down and up and down. I don’t move.

   ‘Show me your titties,’ he says. I don’t look at him.

   ‘Prick-tease,’ he says. I don’t look at him.

   ‘Bet some lad’s giving you one,’ he says. I don’t look at him.

   ‘I declare that you’re sacred to me,’ he says. I don’t look at him.

   ‘And if you so much as look at any other bugger, I’ll rip your hair out and stuff it in your mouth,’ he says. I don’t look at him.

   ‘You know you love me really,’ he says. I don’t look at him.

   ‘I mean, what you scared of?’ he says. I don’t look at him.

   ‘I’m Lord of The Oracle,’ he says. ‘There ain’t nowt in the now or in your future that I don’t know.’

   I can feel sick coming up my throat and I’m gulping and gulping to push it back down. I want him to go away, I want to scream at him to fuck off back to all them women who want him. There’s so many who throw themselves at him, so why won’t he leave me be?

   ‘You’d better still be a virgin, this had better all been worth it,’ he says, again. And that’s when I look at him.

   ‘Fuck off, old man,’ I say.

   I know I shouldn’t have said it, but it’s like the words escaped before I had the chance to stop my brain from making them.

   ‘I’d rather fuck you,’ he says and he sits down next to me. His thigh brushes against mine. He’s calm, too calm. I try to turn my body away, he shuffles closer.

   ‘Over my dead body,’ I say. I feel his hand on my thigh.

   He laughs. ‘Soon,’ he says, and then, ‘It’s your destiny.’

   And that’s when I turn to look at him. I don’t remove his hand from my thigh, I don’t scream and I don’t shout. There’s something in his voice that makes me listen, that makes me know that what he’s about to say matters. He’s that close to my face I can smell his ciggie breath. It’s like I’ve got no more fight, like all the strength in me’s gone. I can’t stop him, he’s just too strong, he’s too focused. He’s never going to stop. Martin Savage has got the advantage, he knows what happens next.

   ‘Why don’t you just kill me?’ I say, I almost whisper. I mean it. I wish he would.

   ‘No point,’ he says, and then, ‘You’re going to die within the year anyway.’

   ‘What?’ I say. My eyes are on his face, he’s smiling a proper smile.

   ‘Dead,’ he says. ‘Silver told me. Within a year. Your life’s over.’

   He says those words and I listen. I’m sure I’m holding my breath. I think I’m shaking. And that’s when something changes in me, something hardens, something makes sense. I mean, I think about Silver and I think about all those lines on my palm that told them secrets. I know that Martin Savage is evil but I also know that he’s telling the truth, that it’s been foretold. That’s why Silver’s been avoiding me, that’s why I’ve been feeling full of hula-hoops. That’s why all my hopes and dreams for my future are pointless. I’m never going to escape, I’m never going to be allowed to have better than this.

   I know I’m crying. I can hear Martin Savage laughing. I can’t fight him any longer, he’s broken me, his fingers have moved up my thigh and are fiddling with the elastic on my knickers.

   And that’s when I look into his eyes. He can see the change in me too.

   ‘That’s right, my shagging you was foretold,’ he says.

   ‘It’s written in your palm,’ he says.

   ‘Get up,’ he says, removing his fingers from me and standing up tall. ‘Go into my changing room.’

   I keep looking at him, I keep looking into his eyes, I see his disgust, I see what he really thinks of me. I know that I’ve no choice, I know that I’m playing a role. I guess this is what destiny feels like. As I’m getting up, I see that he’s unzipping his jeans.

   ‘They all give in eventually, Laurel,’ he says. ‘Let me show you love,’ he says, licking his lips. ‘Let me show you what it means to be loved,’ he says to me, and then, ‘Before you’re dead and buried.’

   Reference No: 10-003760

   Name: Charlotte (Charlie) Cornelius

   Missing Since: 05-Feb-1998

   Not only do I have a boner but I’m running out the yard with my pants around my arse and it’s raining on my cock.

   ‘You twats!’ I’m shouting, but I know they’re not listening.

   My cock rocks in the wind as I run, but I don’t stop and zip up my trousers until I get around the corner, just outside the post office on the main road.

   The sky’s all grey, mainly ’cause it’s been raining forever, and I’m just letting myself get soaking. I’m a proper bell-end. I mean, what was I thinking? Estelle Jarvis is fit, there was no way she’d ever be interested in me. I mean just ’cause she liked all my profile pictures on Facebook. Like she’d ever want to suck my cock. No. That twat Tommy Clarke organised it all and by now my cock’ll be all over Facebook.

   Why do that? Why put my cock all over Facebook? I look up to the sky, like there’s someone there, like anyone gives a fuck ’bout me. The rain falls in my eye and it stings like fuck. I mean I thought rain was supposed to be good for you, not this bastard, not this twatting northern rain. It pours from the skies non-stop, largest recorded rainfall forever, and now the bastard’s practically blinded me.

   I reckon that ’bout sums up my day.

   It all started last night. Estelle Jarvis was all over my Facebook wall.

   1 Would I get drunk with you? yepp

   2 Hug, kiss, or more? kiss

   3 Do I trust you? yepp

   4 Share bed or on the floor? bed lol ;)

   5 Friend, best friend, or good friends? good friend

   6 Love, like, hate you? love

   7 Good-looking, gorgeous, pretty, ugly, alright, fit? gaaawjuss

   8 Would I go out with you? yepp

   9 Rate (personality)? 10

   10 Rate (looks)? 10

   11 What’s your name in my phone? Arthur B

   12 Would I give you my number? u ave it

   13 How did we meet? in school

   I didn’t have her number and I was trying to pluck up courage to inbox and ask for it but every sentence I wrote sounded gay. Then she posted ‘inbox me I’ve gotta talk’ on my wall and I did. I inboxed Estelle Jarvis, THE Estelle Jarvis who’s at the top of the year-eleven tree.

   I reckon the other lads from my year were proper wanting to know what was going on, ’cause they were all over my Facebook wall with ‘inbox matee?’ and I was all ‘I will iab’, but I didn’t, mainly ’cause me and Estelle Jarvis were on chat. That’s when she said that she wanted to meet me after school, around the back of the Sixth Form Centre. She said that she wanted to suck my cock and I probs shouldn’t have gone along, but I reckoned it was a chance to get me a nice girlfriend who’d maybes have sex with me.

   ’Course I got to behind the Sixth Form Centre and she was already there. Seriously she was unzipping my trousers before I’d even said a word and my cock was playing along ’cause that’s what cocks do. Then she had my cock out my pants and she pulled my pants down over my arse. That’s when she stepped back and she was having a right look. I pushed it out a bit and prayed to God that it wouldn’t go floppy.

   And that’s when it all went tits up.

   ‘Alrite gay?’ he said. ‘You hoping for stinky fingers?’

   And that’s when I realised there was probs eight or nine of the bastards, all with their phones out, all taking photos of my cock. And that’s when I legged it out through the yard, with my pants around my arse and the rain falling on my boner.

   I’m maybes thinking that I might have overreacted and I should have laughed while I put my cock away, that maybes me having a boner would’ve stopped Tommy twatting Clarke from saying I was gay. And I’m maybes thinking that the twats that took them photos are complete dicks and one step away from lager-drinking ASBO yobs.

   They’ve really upped their game this time. I mean this is a hundred times worse than the shit they kick out of me every twatting time they see me. I mean my legging it with my pants around my arse has probs made everything a million times worse. I mean whoever said your school days are the best in your life, well they were talking utter bollocks.

   It’s not like I can talk to my dad ’bout all the Facebook stuff.

   Everyone at school reckons Dad’s gay. I’ve had many a Facebook-wall post off them saying ‘Braxton’s dad gobblz cock’ and ‘Ur dad is queer’. But he’s not. Dad’s just broken, proper broken.

   Two years ago I came home from school to find my mum sitting at the bottom of the stairs crying. I thought maybes my dad’d died. He hadn’t. He was at work and Mum was gearing herself up to pissing off out of our lives.

   Mum told me that she’d got back in touch with some bloke she’d known at university. She’d found him on twatting Facebook and at first it was all ’bout inboxing. Then she’d met up with him for a pint. She’d driven all the way to Leeds just so as they could meet up in a pub they once knew. Mum said it like I’d be impressed that she’d once been in a pub. Mum said it’d been going on for two years. Two fucking years and my dad didn’t have a clue. At first I wondered why Mum was telling me all the stuff. I mean I didn’t want her getting all menstrual ’bout life and then, Jesus Christ, she made me a bit sick in my mouth when she started going on ’bout how she was still young and needed sex. She didn’t say it exactly like that, but that was the gist of it.

   The fact was that Dad wasn’t giving her any and Mum wanted some.

   Mum said that she reckoned she deserved more than the shit life her and Dad were having and that if she didn’t leave that very day then she’d probs never leave. Mum said she’d waited until I was fourteen, God bless her consideration, but that now I was fourteen there was little more she could help me with. She made some joke about ‘Arthur helping Arthur’, ’cause clearly what with me and my dad having the same name, that meant that I was more his than hers. She reckoned she’d done enough raising me and my dad’d be good at the last bits before I left home. I think she said something ’bout expecting me to be left home by the time I was sixteen. Clearly she had high hopes for my future career, even at that early age.

   Anyways, that’s when Mum stood up off the stairs, I mean she was sobbing so not entirely a heartless slag, but she went upstairs and I followed her into her and Dad’s bedroom. Then she packed one bag, with hardly owt. It was mainly some frilly underwear, make-up, some expensive perfume and a couple of photos of me that she liked best. One was from when I was a baby and the other from when I was two, she didn’t take owt with her to remind her of how I was then.

   I sat on Mum’s and Dad’s bed and I watched her packing her stuff. All the time I didn’t cry and I didn’t shout and I certainly didn’t speak. I just watched my mum putting the only reminders of her life with us into a bag. Simple. And while she was packing she said that that day was the start of her new life with her new bloke and that he was all set for buying her everything she needed. The bell-end. He was a lecturer and Mum was thinking ’bout going back to study creative twatting writing. She had a novel in her, whatever the fuck that meant. She was going to do all the stuff that having me when she was twenty had stopped her from doing. She said I’d made her tits little and taken away her identity. It was bad enough she was pissing off but saying shit embarrassing stuff like that made it all the worse. She even said that she was looking forward to being a mum again one day.

   Then Mum came over to me on the bed and she sat next to me. She put her hand on my knee and gave it a little squeeze. And that was all. No hug, no emotional goodbye. Just my mum standing up, picking up her bag and pissing off down the stairs and out the front door. I was left sitting on Mum’s and Dad’s bed wondering what the fuck I was going to tell Dad.

   And, me being me, I didn’t tell Dad for a few hours. I mean I couldn’t judge the right time to tell him ’bout Mum pissing off. He came in from work asking me where Mum was and I lied, I said I didn’t know. By half ten and after he’d figured she’d gone out without her mobile and left her house keys in the kitchen, Dad was all set for phoning the police. That’s when I reckoned I had no choice but to tell him ’bout Mum being a slag.

   Dad seemed to take it quite well, that night. That night I reckon he did what any bloke would do after learning their wife had pissed off. He drank most of his single malt and passed out on the sofa. Not forgetting that when I went down in the morning to have my breakfast before school, I found him stinking of piss, lying half on the sofa and half on the floor. But I reckoned that was a normal reaction. I expected a couple of days of wallowing and then me and him’d put the world to rights. ’Cause my dad was ace, proper tough and funny, I expected him to sort all the shit out and make everything better.

   I couldn’t tell anyone, probs ’cause I knew that the likes of Tommy Clarke would go on ’bout how my mum’s new bloke was chewing on her tits. And also I didn’t really want anyone to know what a slag Mum was being. I guess in them first few days I reckoned she’d come home. She didn’t. Obviously.

   After that night of Dad pissing himself, he was all apologetic. He even went out looking for Mum. I told him all I could remember ’bout her new bloke and we even tried logging into Mum’s Facebook account, but of course she’d got herself a new password, to go with her new life. She’d even protected her profile so that we couldn’t see any of her friends. Got to give my mum credit, she was shit hot on cyber protection.

   Anyways Dad didn’t give up for quite a bit. He was all for cleaning the house and cooking and being pretty much tops. He was saying stuff ’bout us Arthur Braxtons being made of strong shit, going on ’bout his dad being an Arthur Braxton and how he took no shit from women and how our name was like some sort of badge-of-twatting-honour. It was a laugh, me and my dad against the twatting world. But then I reckon it hit Dad that Mum wasn’t coming back and that’s when he went all manic.

   To start with he got to writing ‘cunt’ all over my mum’s feature wall in the lounge. I reckon it made the feature wall look less wanky, but I didn’t tell Dad that. Then he spent days smashing up plates and ornaments. He’d take them out from Mum’s cupboards and off Mum’s shelves, then go into the centre of the kitchen and hoy them on the floor. I reckon no one’ll understand my reasoning but I’d give anything for him to be like that again. It showed he cared and it didn’t leave the room stinking of piss. ’Course I didn’t like him being like that at the time, God no, not back then. He was a proper nutter. But it was somehow better than now.

   After a manic week or so, Dad went all quiet. And that quiet’s how he’s been since.

   Mum never came back. Worse still she never called, she never emailed, she never sent a text and she never even bothered to tell us where she was living. She hasn’t even bothered with my two birthdays since. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not an utterly heartless bitch, she pays money into the bank account every month. Guilt money, I reckon. But it keeps us afloat and social services off our backs. But Dad, well he’s not taken my mum disappearing too well. He’s managed to tell his mum and his sister to twat off, and even though at first they’d come visiting and trying to make things better. They’d bring around food and bits of shopping, stuff they reckoned we needed like washing-up liquid and talcum powder and bleach for the toilet. But after six months of Dad refusing to speak to them and instead holding up a piece of cardboard with the words ‘twat off’ written in one of Mum’s lipsticks, well they did just that.

   My dad’s being a bell-end but I get it. I get that Mum broke him, I get that he’s got nowt to get bothered ’bout and he’s got no one to get washed for. I get it. Instead he spends his days lying on the sofa watching daytime telly or staring at the word ‘cunt’ on Mum’s feature wall. Dad’s doctor has him as ‘unfit to work’. No shit, Sherlock. And me, well I’ve spent months trying to make sure that no one ever comes round our house and if they do, they certainly never get to step into this shithole.

   ’Course, I don’t tell anyone ’bout how shit it is in my house. It’s not like I’ve got any mates to talk to. Tommy Clarke told everyone that the reason my mum pissed off was ’cause my dad’s a bender. He said my mum’d caught my dad bumming the milkman, said that’s why Mum pissed off, said that’s why Dad lost his job. Everyone believed Tommy twatting Clarke. But what am I supposed to do? I don’t want to hear them all calling Mum a slag and saying how she’s getting boned every night. God, no. And I can’t be telling them that Dad’s broken and spends his days watching crap daytime telly and pouring stale Walker’s crisps into his mouth. So, I keep quiet. I let them think whatever they want. That’s ’cause I read an agony-aunt column once and it said how if you fight back you sometimes end up digging yourself into an even bigger hole. So me, well I let the shit-slingers hoy whatever they want at me. Sticks and stones, my dad’s no bender.

   So I keep my mum’s secret and I keep my dad’s secrets and instead I put up with daily shit from Tommy twatting Clarke. Well I say daily but I’m proper talented at wagging off school. I mean why would I bother going someplace where I get the shit kicked out of me ’cause Tommy Clarke and his bunch of merry twats’ve got some gay-bashing thing going on? He reckons Dad’s gay, that I’ve caught being gay off my dad and that I deserve the beating for the both of us. He’s even told the lads in my year that if they’re friends with me then they’ll ‘catch being gay’ too. Tommy Clarke’s proper bright like that. And if I don’t leg it fast enough, then I put up with the beatings they give me, simple as that.

   So, I go to school when I have to, I keep social services off my back. But every single twatting time I do it ends up with me legging out of school and Tommy Clarke and his merry bunch of twats chasing after me. And all the time I know that none of it would be happening if my mum wasn’t such a fucking slag.

   But, still, sometimes I dream ’bout Mum. I dream ’bout her coming round one day and letting herself in with a key and ’bout her having bags of shopping from Asda. I swear I can practically taste the custard doughnuts and Jammie Dodgers popping out the top of her carrier bags. And then it’s shit all over again when I wake up and realise that my dream was bollocks, that Mum don’t give a shit ’bout me and that my life’s utter wank. Some days I hate that I wake up.

   Mrs Harrison from over the road stopped me the other day and said that she’d seen Mum pushing a pram through the centre of Manchester. She said she was sure it was Mum but that she’d lost a few pounds and got herself a fancy new haircut. She said she’d not seen Mum round our way much recently and wondered if she was all right. I ended up saying something gay like ‘my mum’s on holiday’. I mean, for fucking out loud, who goes on holiday for two years? I reckon it’s perhaps ’bout time I said something honest. So next time someone asks, I’m all for saying that Mum’s fucked off with a bell-end and she’s not coming back. And that she don’t give a twat ’bout me and that she certainly isn’t going to want to be having sex with Dad. He stinks of piss and he’s fat.

   Nice one, Dad. Good work on the parenting front. Nice one, Mum. You utter twat.

   

   I pull my phone out of my pocket. I’m on the seafront now and it’s proper freezing. Nowt but crappy black to my left, I can’t even see the sea, and the shops are closed; I swear, I must be the only twat stupid enough to be outdoors. Even the seagulls have fucked off out of the rain.

   My head’s been full of Estelle Jarvis and Tommy twatting Clarke. I must have been walking for hours.

   I’m shaking, I don’t know if it’s ’cause of the cold or my head. The wind’s lashing from the sea and onto me, the rain’s splashing on my phone’s screen and making it impossible to read. I smear it across with the cuff of my blazer and manage to press an icon that takes me to my settings. I tap off it and load Facebook.

   And that’s when I see a photo of my cock.

   ‘Bastards,’ I whisper. ‘Twatting bastards.’

   I’ve been tagged. My cock’s on Tommy Clarke’s wall, so there’s no way I can delete it, but ’cause he’s tagged me and practically every other person in year eleven, my cock is everywhere. The six inches of my boner is glistening from my phone’s screen. Oh God, no. There’s already thirty-seven likes and nineteen comments, but I can’t bring myself to click on the comments. I know it’ll be taken down soon, but that’s not the point. The whole fucking world will have seen it by the time Facebook gets to removing it.

   That’s when I start walking along the seafront. I’m shoving my phone back in my pocket as I walk. The rain’s pounding down on my head and the wind’s dancing across the Irish Sea. The wind’s circling me and making me feel like utter shite, like it’s telling me that my life’s not worth owt. I stop. I put my shaking hands onto the metal railings and look out to the sea. The cold wind stings my face. I hadn’t even realised I was crying. Estelle Jarvis is an utter bitch. I hate her. And Tommy Clarke is an utter twat. But it’s me that’s the biggest twat in all of this. What the fuck was I thinking? Why the fuck would someone as fit as Estelle Jarvis want to suck my cock? I’m the school fucking freak, why would she be interested in a twat like me?

   I’ve no idea what to do next. I’m freezing, my uniform’s fucked, I’ve no one to turn to, I’ve nowhere to go. I’ve fuck all in my life. And somehow the wind’s telling me that my life’s not going to get any better. And somehow the wind’s telling me that this is it, that this is the best my life’s ever going to be. And somehow the wind’s telling me that all Arthur Braxtons are utter twats.

   And that’s when I start thinking ’bout ending it all. I mean there, on the seafront, with the heavy sky and the freezing wind, that’s when I realise that I’ve nowt in my life. No mum, no dad who gives a fuck, no mates, beatings at school, and now I’ll always be known as ‘Cock Boy’. But more than that, I’m thinking that all Arthur Braxtons are fucked up and I don’t want to end up like my dad.

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