He sat on the window sill with his room dark behind him. He felt tired and drained; staring out of the window, taking refuge in the silence when a light coming on caught his attention. As he looked he saw the girl entering the room. She moved slowly, almost dragging herself. It was late enough to be early morning, but it looked like her husband had not come back yet; she looked so thin and fragile in the stark light of the bare bulb; when she looked up, directly at him. He felt himself straighten with shock and caught a look of surprise on her face as he fell backwards and landed on the bed post below, slapping his hand against the wall catching himself before his head hit something. He sat there in a heap, not breathing; waiting for his mother’s recrimination for making a such a racket, for anything. Nothing. He couldn’t look back, what if she was looking for him; she could be calling the police. Slowly, on his hands and knees he crawled beneath the window onto his bed; his body tired, but his mind refusing to let him sleep.
He hung his head low as he walked along the corridor between classes. They would all know, he could sense it. Whispering about him; “... he was looking right into her bedroom,...”, “do you think he,...” He could feel everything pushing in on him avoiding peoples' stares as he carried himself forward. He closed eyes, just for a second to take a deep breath to steady himself and collapsed to the floor.
“Can you hear me?” Came the voice above him. He opened his eyes to an empty corridor with just the nurse leaning over him. He took a deep sigh and nodded his head.
“I’m sorry, I just came over dizzy... I didn’t sleep well last night.” He brushed him arm across his face then clambered to stand up.
“Don’t move until you feel well enough.”
“I’m fine. Thanks - I have a class...”
“I think you’d better go on home - I’ll fill in the form for you. Try to get some rest,” she said to him, nodding her head slowly with a mock frown for emphasis.
“Yes, I want to.” He said quietly.
The air outside did feel fresher and his head was clearing as he walked across the grass towards the flats. He was passing the shop when he saw the girl come out holding her toddler in her arm with a small bag of shopping. He stopped. It seemed long ago when he had found out that the right thing to do is always the hardest. I can’t stand here all day staring at her, he thought then strode forward.
“Excuse me. Sorry, can I...”
She turned round to see him without any kind of recognition on her face and took at step back.
“This may seem; well look,” swallowing hard he continued, “I’m sorry for, surprising you last night. I was just... well, I wasn’t - “
“Did you hurt yourself? Maybe it should be me doing the apologising.” Her voice surprised him as did her weak smile when she looked at him. Then it faded and he could see her looking briefly to each side. “Thanks for mentioning it; but I have to go.”
He responded without thinking, “Can I help you? With your things - it all seems a bit heavy.”
“No,” she shook her head, “thanks and everything but... it wouldn’t be a good idea. Look, sorry, but I really better go.”
They both stood there for a few seconds, before she turned and headed back to the flats opposite his. He stood there watching after her. His thoughts crowded around inside his head, but none of them came to the fore. He should run after her, but do what? Something, he thought, I have to do something. She was entering the building as he found himself out of breath standing behind her. She turned around when she heard him taking the deep breath behind her, her eyes wide. Then it turned briefly to amusement when she saw him standing there.
“I’m sorry, but I was just thinking; I have nothing else going on today, until this evening anyway, and if you’re at a loose end as well, perhaps, I was thinking of maybe heading into town and...”
“Would you like a coffee?” He waited.
“He’s getting very heavy,” she said inclining her head towards the toddler in her arm, “You’d better go. But,” she said quickly as he turned away, “it was the nicest offer I’ve had for quite a while. Thanks.” She found herself actually smiling at him as he tried to hide his dejection, then she glanced around herself and headed off. He didn’t move for a short time before heading back to his flat.
He changed quickly in his room and had decided to make the best of the time he had free and head into town before he had to start work. He might not even opt for the cleanup shift tonight so he could head home early and catch up on some badly needed sleep. So much had happened so quickly from relief to disappointment.
He glanced out of the window as he got ready for bed that night, but it was dark and he found himself smiling as he climbed into bed.
“I don’t feel that well, I’m not going in.”
“And what if they cut the bursary, what am I going to do then?” Came the sharp reply.
He just stood there facing his mother. She broke the silence.
“If you weren’t out ‘til all hours with your friends, you might find a bit more energy to go to school.”
“I came back early yesterday, so they probably won’t expect me in today.”
He sighed and turned away.
“Yesterday as well?”
“Look!” He turned back to face her, “I felt faint and was asked to go home. It won’t stop the bursary.”
She stared at him, then sniffed and headed into the kitchen. He waited until she was out of sight before heading back up to his room. And waited.
He had seen her husband head out, his bulk carried ungainly with an old rucksack slung over his shoulder. He saw her tentatively approach her window and look out making sure to stay out of his sight, until she was sure he was gone. She then looked up and he waved at her casually and his hand stopped mid-air when he saw the livid red markings around the left side of her face. He stayed stock still as she covered the side of her face with her hand and withdrew from the window; he could still see her as she sat on her bed with her head in her hands. He turned and headed for the door. He saw his mother was readying to get to work when she saw him.
“That ill are you?” She said quietly and shook her head. “You’d better think about your priorities.”
As he approached her door he felt himself hesitating, then heard himself tapping the letterbox. There was no answer and he waited. After tapping again, he heard her voice quietly through the door. “Who is it?”
“It’s me,” he said, “sorry, we spoke yesterday outside the shop.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to,” he stopped, “to help you out.”
“Please go away, I don’t want to wake Michael.”
“I can’t just walk away.”
“You don’t even know me. You know nothing about me.”
He looked around.
“Could we at least talk face to face and not through the door.”
He stood there and turned to go away when the door opened. He could see the unmarked side of her face through the crack.
“Please,” she said quietly, “I just want to be alone.”
“Maybe you’ve been alone too long.” He said with more emotion than he had intended. And he stood there facing her. The door opened further.
The house was simple, neat and well ordered. He hadn’t known what to expect and was unsure how to react. He had just run on pure instinct and he was starting to wonder if he’d just made things difficult for both of them.
“I could call the police.” He said to break the silence.
“It’s not that simple,” she said back to him. They both sat in silence until she spoke quietly to him, almost a whisper, “If you really want to help, talk about something else. Talk about anything else. Why don’t you just tell me about yourself?”
“There’s a story that could fill a thousand pages, as long as nine hundred and ninety nine and a half of them had pictures. Large pictures.” He thought he saw the glimmer of smile as she rubbed her eye with her fingers seeming to hold back more tears. “Can I make you a coffee or anything?”
“You seem to have an obsession with coffee. I don’t have any, but I’ll get you a glass of water.”
“No,” he said quickly, “let me. Do you want one?”
“Yes, why not?”
He talked to her from the kitchen as he poured the water into two cups he found on the drainer. “I’m studying at the moment. It’s my last year.”
He held the cup out for her. “Are you hoping for University, then?”
“No, I don’t think so. I was only allowed to stay on at school because I was given a bursary; so the chances of Uni look very slim.”
“Would you like to?”
“No, I don’t think it’s for me. I think I’ll, well, to tell you the truth I have no idea.” He thought for a second. “I don’t usually tell anyone this, but,” he looked over both his shoulders before replying, “I work in a fast food restaurant.”
“Really?” She answered in mocked undertones, then blinked as she heard crying from the next room. “It’s Michael,...” she said to him.
“Look, I used to baby sit for my mother's friends, it doesn’t bother me.”
She looked at him, regarding him seriously, she started to speak, then halted and seemed to almost fall into herself. “Could you help me with him, one of my arms is not so good today.”
They were out shopping, him pushing the buggy and her walking beside him. Lost in the crowds forever around in the town centre. In the one of the shops he watched her bending over to reach an ornament and thought back to him padding the cut on her face with cotton wool. The tear rolling down her face to her quivering lip. He touched the teardrop with the tip of his finger and she covered his hand with hers her face filled with sadness and need. He trailed his finger around her lips then he felt her hand in his hair as she pulled him forward, the kiss filled almost desperate against his responsive mouth. He lay against her afterwards, silent as she clung against him. He couldn’t talk to her about her injuries and neither of them ever mentioned her husband. It felt untouchable, keeping the world out of arms reach; knowing that once it was mentioned it would be out and uncontainable.
He had left them at the entrance to their flat and headed back to his. He unlocked the door and entered.
“You stupid bastard.” He stopped short, his mother standing in the hallway. He stared at her, caught completely unprepared.
“I’m sorry; what?”
“She’s got a kid! You’re only bloody seventeen. She’s married!”
He stood in front of her, but did not say anything.
“And what about your exams? How many days have you taken off school so you could see that, slut? You just don’t think! If you’re not galavanting around with your friends you’re off with her-“ She stopped as he approached her.
“I have no friends,” he said to her, “I never had. I’ve spent almost every night for the past two years working to get out of this hole. I spend my breaks studying. She’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me and this time you’re not going to stand in my way.”
“You can’t go back, Billy...” She almost whispered it. He stood and looked at her, realisation dawning on him. She took a step away from him as she saw his eyes staring at her. He brushed past her, rushing to his room to see the window. His eyes widened with fear. “No...”
He rushed back to the door.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
He quickly turned to her. “You might want to think about calling the police.” Then headed out.
Billy rapped on her door with his fist, adrenaline pumping through him. He had heard something through the door, but it slid right past him. As it opened to see the towering form of her husband standing there, his eyes wild, “What the fuck do you want?”
Involuntarily he took a step back from him. Then he saw her behind him, there was blood trickling from the side of her eye and her jaw seemed swollen. He could see her expression of panic as she saw him. He tore his gaze away to see the husband glancing back to see what Billy was looking at. Her husband started to say something before he felt himself snap inside. His fist hit the side of the husbands head, then the other one, before he felt the back swing of the husbands hand. Everything seemed to explode inside his head as he stumbled back, falling to the ground.
”It’s you,” the husband started towards him, “you’re the little bastard.”
“No, please don’t touch him. I don’t even know him, please.”
He could hear everything; her cries and the babies cries constantly in the background. Then he felt something thumping into his side and saw the husband pulling his foot back again, before another thud into his side.
He looked up at the husband, “You’re a piece of shit,” he managed to spit out. The husband stared at him before reaching down and pulling him close to his face.
“I’m going to-“
Billy’s head pulled quickly back then forward and a loud crack came from the husband’s nose. He bellowed as he dropped Billy back to the ground and grabbed his nose. Billy stayed shakily on his feet, but he could only stare at the fist before it sent him spinning around. The husband grabbed the body and ran it head first into the metal railings of the stair. There was a scream from the flat and the sound of running feet. The husband held onto Billy’s limp body before slamming it again into the railings. The police trying to grab him to pull him off. He let go and the body slumped to the ground; the police holding onto the husband, forcing him against the wall. Another calling for an ambulance on the radio. She ran forward to the body.
“Don’t move him ma’am.”
Reaching down to touch it, she looked around. Several neighbours on the landing had come out; all staring down at the scene.
“You couldn’t come out to help him! Why couldn’t you have helped him?” Tears were rolling down her already reddened face.
She faced her husband across the table.
“I brought him, but he didn’t want to come in here, so I left him in the crêche.” He said nothing, but stared at her. “You know it’s funny, you get involved in all sorts of support groups of women who have been through the same thing; husbands in jail for GBH, assault, armed robbery; and it would seem that the one thing that many of their husbands can’t bear is a man who beats up on children.” His hands tightly gripped the sides of the table. “This is the last time you’ll ever see me, the divorce is final and if you try to find me or come anywhere near me, I’ll have you arrested.” A mocking semblance of a smile played on her face as she stood up. “So I’d be careful in here.”
She approached the slightly battered blue car in the lot with her child in her arms, opening the door to start strapping him into the safety chair.
“I take it from that look that it was worth it?” Came the voice from the drivers seat.
“Oh, yes.” She said to him smiling. She climbed into the passenger seat and they both kissed. She leaned back and traced the scars on his face with her finger. “Thanks, Billy, for this; for taking the day off from the office to take me.”
“Anytime,” he replied.