|"But why can't I go...?"
"Shut up and watch the telly. Twyford's too far away."
"But I can catch the bus, or I can walk! I know the way."
There were two, and only two, sides to my Father. On this occassion it was the cantankerous, fed-up-with-life, can't-be-bothered-to-parent side. It was the 'I've made a mess and I have a child I do not want, so I'm going to take it out on the world today' aspect. We were currently sat around a dinner table in the Teg Down house in Winchester, while Jackie, my Stepmother and Dad's wife, served up dinner.
The Teg Down house sat atop a quiet hill and looked out upon the nearby golf course, where I'd gone one Winter years before when it had been snowing. On that day I had discovered the joy of riding down a steep, sleet-covered dip on an upturned dustbin lid. Regardless of the season, the house remained neat and idyllic - like every house in this small city, whose main qualities were that it was very clean, peaceful and boring. The neighborhood was perfect; a place of harmony, where its inhabitants regularly washed their cars on cloudy days and kept excessive lawn growth to a minimum.
Inside the house there was a comfortably-sized living room with an old fashioned fireplace, a kitchen which constantly smelt of cleaning fluid (Jackie was a devoted and proud housekeeper) and an adjoining dining room which barely fitted a table and small television where we'd watch 'The Weakest Link' or 'Newsround' whilst eating. This evening was no exception.
Jackie finally seated herself after piling vegetables and gravy onto each of our plates. Overweight and undertrodden by a life of consistent blows to her self-esteem, she always had a somewhat depressed presence. You could tell that she'd sort of given up on life, and existed now only to do her duty - to continue to serve the man she'd loved all her life, no matter how undeserving he was. Contorted with arthiritis, she was often irate towards me and took all of my childlike mistakes and faults as personal insults.
Yet she treated me and Sunny as if we were her own. Dad had left her to be with Mum back in '83 - an extra-marital affair that resulted in mine and Sunny's birth. But instead of hating us for how we were conceived, she raised us more than Mum did. I used to take this as an act of kindness beyond my comprehension; I now understand it to be a last-ditch attempt to stay in connection with Dad, even if it meant bringing up his kids by another woman.
Looking back there are so many things I would liked to have said to her. I wanted to say, that I really did appreciate how she'd raised me more than my own Mother had, even if it was for the wrong reasons, I wanted to say, there's no reason for you to do this, you have a life, you should reclaim it. Yes, I wish I'd said, please don't take it personally... Everytime I forget to help you with the dishes, or everytime I leave my room in a mess - you are a good person who's been crossed with incredible misfortune, and we are the same. Please don't condemn me.
... But I never will say those things. As it was, I stayed with her during the weekdays, and went to a local secondary school. On the weekends, however, my address would change - Mum owned a run-down house in a council estate in Chandler's Ford, some eight miles away. Sunny lived and went to school there. Dad would drive me down on a Friday night, to give Jackie a 'break' and so that I could see Mum, if she would be visiting that weekend (she lived and worked in London as a GP, and always had done to my memory).
We began eating. I felt frustrated - this weekend would be Josh's 15th Birthday and he was having a party and I really wanted to go. I kept asking Dad and he kept saying no. But didn't he understand the significance, and how important my presence would be there...?! I was Josh's girlfriend after all, and had been for over a year - which is a particularly long time when you're 14. He told me that his parents would take us ice skating and everything. I really didn't want to miss out.
But as we sat and ate our dinner in the usual silence, warmed only by the sound of the TV presenter excitedly exclaiming about the weather forecast ('and this week folks, you can expect copious amounts of rain and melancholy, to compliment an already miserable season..!'), I knew that it would be foolish to ask again at this juncture. Besides. I knew how to get my way.
While Dad and Jackie discussed the contents of today's newspaper in syncopantic fashion, I methodically worked my way through my plate, carefully avoiding the sprouts until the last possible moment. If I was lucky or particularly stealthy, I could catapult them into the distance using my fork without Jackie noticing. Green food never interested me so I used to pretend that all my broccoli pieces were trees, and that there were creatures living in them, and that I was Goddess of the forest that was my dinner. I also used to daydream and think that, for every sprout that I successfully removed from the playing field by catapult, a sprout would fall from the sky in a third world country somewhere, and into the mouth of a starving child. Therefore, my conscience told me that it was okay to chuck food around.
When meal time was done, Dad made for the living room to fall asleep on the couch during the 6 o' clock news, and I went upstairs to my room to write for a bit. My room was large and cream coloured, and contained two single beds (the second of which served no purpose whatsoever), a desk, chair, bookcase and inbuilt wardrobe. I used to hide in there, when I was small enough, and call it my 'den', where I would feel safe and secret. I sat at my desk and opened my writing pad onto a fresh page. Seeing a blank sheet always provoked me to write on it at once, even if it was a made-up word. I always wrote the first things that came to mind which, tonight, were
'mangoes are preferable to sprouts, but I've had my fair share of both. School was boring and I have homework that I'm never going to do. No one cares about Pythagoras. It's Josh's party the day after tomorrow and I can't go, even though I've said I'll walk. It's only five miles away. If I do a spell I should be able to go. I hope. No, I WILL go. I have to. And I want to. So I will.'
I underlined the 'will', and then stared at it blankly for a while, until Jackie called me downstairs to help with the dishes. Doh. I was meant to remember of my own accord to offer to help - but strangely I never felt enthused about dishes - and again, Jackie would take it to heart. She was in the kitchen wiping surfaces with a stony expression on her face.
"What were you doing up there?" She asked.
"Writing... Well, not really. Not really doing anything, just daydreaming." I already knew I'd dropped myself in it.
"Daydreaming? Will you ever find anything else better to do with your time..? Like helping me, for instance." I knew well what was coming next - the usual complaints and delivery of guilt. "I wait on you and your Father hand-and-foot. I do everything, and with no thanks. My hands and my knees are killing me, but no one seems to care."
"No Siobhan, you're not sorry. Every evening is the same and there's no excuse for it. Other kids have to help around the home." Jackie busies her way out the back door to do something in the garage outside it, and I morosely clear the rest of the table away. I genuinely don't mean any harm - yet it's true that I don't bother. I don't need to. Jackie will complain for the sake of complaining - but that's all she'll do. As such, when she comes back inside her mood is calmer and warmer. "How was school today?" She leans against the dry food cupboard door and places one hand - the one in which she's holding the usual dirty wash cloth - on her hip as she surveys me.
"It was okay. I saw Josh..." I tested the water. Jackie never had the most positive attitude towards me and my teenage relationships.
"Yes, and you want your Father to take you to his Brithday on Saturday, don't you?" Her eyes narrowed.
"Yep, I really do. But he says he won't 'cos Twyford's too far away. I've offered to walk."
"You can't walk all the way there..!" Jackie's face contorted to emphasise her indignation. "That's silly; it'd take you about five hours."
'"Yeah but I'd do it."
"Because... I have to go."
"Why do you have to? Your life doesn't depend on it."
"I feel like it does. So I will go."
"You'll do as you're told."
"I'll do what's necessary. And I will go."
Jackie muttered something about me 'not knowing my limits' and stomped out of the room to answer the phone that had just started ringing. I didn't care what she thought of me. She was hardly qualified to judge. I finished what I was doing and retreated to my room.
After the news, Dad prepared to leave. Every evening he went back to the Chandler's Ford house, where he'd sleep every night, and return to Winchester the next afternoon for his dinner. It was a twisted system. Sometimes he picked Sunny up from school and brought him here. Jackie always favoured Sunny - someone in our family had to - and she never let me get away with any bratty misjustice over him. Dad treated Sunny as he would treat dirt on the bottom of his shoe. Sunny was 'stupid, pathetic, inferior'... He would never amount to anything in Dad's eyes. Sunny was not academically gifted (though in truth he was hardly an idiot either, in fact, he was and is very intelligent, but was never motivated to try, just put down for every minute failure), but I was. I was one of the top in the class, at everything. I didn't even need to try, and my parents upheld me for my aptitude at school. Everything came so easily to me.
Dad left the house after an utterance of goodbye to Jackie. I didn't even bother anymore. I listened to the engine of his battered Vauxhall start up and waited until it had faded in the distance before I came back downstairs. Let him go, I thought. All he does is sleep anyway, and whenever he left, Jackie always seemed to cheer up. I'd make coffee for her and hot chocolate for myself, and we'd sit and watch Eastenders in the lounge, or play cards at the dining table - or maybe chess - I was good at chess. I often beat her, and she sometimes beat me back. When Dad was gone I saw a different side to my Stepmother, and I used to wonder why, if she was happier without him, she ever stayed with him in the first place.
On Friday morning I was out the door by 8am. This was uneccesary as I didn't need to be at school for another 45 minutes, and it was a half an hour journey. I left early as I had done every morning for the past year or so - for the off-chance that I might get to see Josh for a few precious minutes before classes started. He came in by bus everyday - and just seeing the Brijan Tours double decker turn the corner every morning near my school used to make my heart skip a beat. I was absolutely no fun to be around at this time of day - whereas my classmates spent their time greeting eachother and discussing music, computer games, makeup or anything else, I stood slightly out of the group circle, eyes constantly fixed on the front gates, waiting for Josh to come through them.
On this frozen December morning, the bus carrying my friend Alistair arrived first. He strolled in as if he owned the place - in typical fashion - and greeted me with a big hug and jovial manner.
"Good morning Shivy! How are you?" His calling me by my nickname, 'Shivy', didn't set him apart from most of the year group. Standing at about six foot and therefore towering over me, it was like being greeted by a massive, happy alsation.
"I'm alright thanks! Just waiting for Josh to get here - I hope he's in today - did you happen to see his bus on your travels..?" It was hard to keep the desperation out of my voice.
"Can't say I did, but don't worry, you'll see him in English after tutor anyway." But that was in a whole half hour from now. Why did no one understand this fairly simple concept? My friends regularly undermined the seriousness of the situation. I began to feel frantic as tutor time approached. I gave up on even pretending to be interested in any small talk, I just stood staring towards the front entrance.
Josh showed up at the last minute, just as I was about to be dragged away to class by Becky, my best friend at the time. She delighted in exaggerating how she needed to drag me away every morning, and lately, I'd begun to get increasingly vexed by it. Wrenching my arm away from her grasp, I dashed towards my boyfriend with the same sense of urgency that you'd expect from a woman running to save her child if threatened by an enraged alligator.
It's hard to say what attracted him to me in the first place - during one art lesson a year before, I'd suddenly decided that I fancied him, and asked him to be my boyfriend the same day (as you do when you're young, naive and impatient). He had agreed and I'd been smiling for the rest of the day. He had long hair and blue eyes, was tall, and always walked with a bit of a limp. His interests were music that was around far before our time, and foreign films (and their directers) that no one else had heard of. In fact our interests and personalities clashed on several points - and yet we were considered 'the couple' of the year group. Whilst others got together and then broke up soon afterwards and for expectedly childish reasons, we kept going.
"Hi. You okay? Were you waiting for me?" He closed the distance between us and I felt overwhelmed.
"Nah", I told him, "why would I do that..? I was actually hoping I could stand outside all through tutor time, and no one would notice." Josh smiled because he knew damn well that I was lying. But then he had to go, and so did I, and though our minute together was worth leaving early for me, I always felt pointless when he wasn't there.
I entered tutor and took my seat next to Becky, who was having a lively discussion with the people next to her and either ignored or didn't notice my presence, so I slipped into a daydream. Westgate School was one of the best in Winchester - the site was spacious and accommodating; the teachers were generally strict and authoritarian. Even though it was a standard comprehensive, Westgate competed academically with private schools, and was often proven to be superior by GCSE results. Every September brought with it a waiting list as long as my arm - I was told I was lucky to get in, and it was only because Dad had written the Headteacher a letter specifically advertising how much of an asset I'd be to them.
Becky's attention finally resorted to me once whoever she was speaking to got bored of her - she began monologuing in my direction about her 'awesome' weekend and how 'hammered' she got, and how many guys she 'got in with'. We were so very different, her and I - she with her so-very-cool social escapades that I was never a part of - despite us having the status of 'best friends' - and I, with my coldly reserved attitude and skeptical manner. If I'm honest, I think we were only friends for so long because neither were friends with anyone else - not really - so we tended to get lumbered with eachother more than anything; also, she regularly flirted with Josh, which used to annoy me no end, though she never got anywhere. She always thought I was jealous of her extrovert manner, and she may not have been wrong. With her bubbly (though superficial) nature and girl-next-door looks, I would never admit to myself that I had wished I was her on more than one occasion.
The teacher, Miss Rawlinson, came into the room and all fell silent. After a quick taking of the register (she also referred to me as 'Shivy'), and an even quicker skim through the tutor group announcements (a reminder to hand back library books before Christmas holidays, the opening of a new lacrosse club...), the bell rang out and there was the sound of chairs scratching across the formica in unison as the class left for their lessons.
Maths was never anything more than a complicated blur for me. I would sit staring out of the window blankly, as the teacher rambled on about equations or statistics; I always told myself I could just catch up later at home, meaning it was perfectly fine to give in to a full-on stupor; and if I was asked a question related to the topic at hand, I would procrastinate - maybe cough a little, whatever - until some over-eager classmate shouted out the answer. I could always rely on Ed to do exactly that.
Ed - Edward - was one of the few friends I had whom I actually liked. Last year, there had been some rumours going around as to the nature of our friendship - and they were not entirely unfounded; I had fancied him from when we first met at the age of eleven. How could I not? He was quietly intelligent and had oceanic eyes that could pierce through metal. But I had never gotton anywhere, espite countless efforts to et him to notice me, so had settled to be friends with him. As it was, he tended to spend most of his free time in the library, where we'd have intelligent discussions concerning homework and animals. I reckon that I only got through the first couple of years at secondary school as well as I did in an attempt to impress him with my high grades - though his were always higher. He sat across from me in the classroom, but I'd long since given up on glancing around at him in the hopes that he'd be glancing back.
At the end of the lesson, Ed waited up for me and asked me what I thought of the topics we covered (well, they covered - I merely spaced out).
"It wasn't too bad. In fact, it was decidedly easy." As usual, I avoided looking him in the eye because I'd feel guilty about it later. "Absolutely", he replied curtly, "although I never had much love for trig. What's your plans for the weekend?" I saw Josh at the other end of the corridor and made a beeline for him. "Uh, party", I announced back, and left Ed in the dust.
"So you can make it, then?" I was walking through the field, hand in hand with Josh during the lunch hour. I was cold and my feet were damp from the rain, but it didn't matter.