An extract from the Katie Behan’s MA novel.
Found myself traipsing down Highgate Hill for the second time in two days.
Danny coughed. ‘Going wildly off script here but are we sure Sam didn’t do it? Straight after he left The Chelsea you arrived and found Elif dead and Ollie injured.’
‘I know. It doesn’t look good.’
Then suddenly it was back. The something I was reaching for in my mind but couldn’t quite catch. It held an answer, it would tell me something I needed to know about Sam. Something that had happened when we were growing up. My stomach was tingling, it was nearly there, I nearly had it.
In the meantime, I was keen to mount a defence for my old friend. I got out my phone.
‘He took a selfie of us when we met up in July.’
The photo was silly. He was holding a veggie burger and I was pretending to eat it. Big smile on his face. Gherkins falling out of the bun, mayo down his fingers. At the time I thought it was one of those pictures that told a lie because looking at it you’d think we were having the time of our lives. It didn’t show the holes in conversation, the gaps where our life experiences had left us with a spikey disparity. He had busking in Thailand and wondering what his purpose was; I had organising my nan’s medication.
Then I realised Sam’s grin was genuine. He really had enjoyed our evening. What we talked about didn’t bother him because he was just happy to be with me. The ‘meaning of life’ chatter was more about finding common ground than anything else, the teenage us had talked about that shit all the time.
I touched Danny’s hand, ‘Sam was my closest friend growing up. I don’t know how best to describe him. Just that he was sweet and kind and sensitive. Obsessed with music, nature, and the meaning of life. He still is.’
‘Do you know who else was obsessed with music, nature, and the meaning of life? Charles fucking Manson.’ He spotted a McDonalds, ‘Christ, all this angst has made me hungry.’
He marched in and a minute later came out brandishing two bags of food and a couple of coffees. We walked the few steps to the tube and stood in the entrance eating egg McMuffins and drinking coffee. The sky darkened, the rain fell, and a couple of homeless guys stood with us and asked for money. Danny gave them a few quid.
‘He’s not like Charles Manson.’
Instead of answering me he put some ketchup on his remaining breakfast. Squished the bun shut. A sudden waft of synthetic tomato.
I looked at the Methodist church opposite, made out the neon angels, almost visible in the daylight.
‘Hate this weather.’
Danny nodded. ‘Gloomy alright.’
He took our wrappers and cups to a bin. I thought about the hospital.
‘Hannah’s always been a bitch.’ I said when he got back.
We got our Oyster cards out and went through the Turnstiles.
‘She was alright, considering you’re shagging her bloke.’
I stopped, caused a couple of women with backpacks and Old School Rough Guides to screech to a halt behind me, ‘Not I’m not.’
‘Why all the covert looks then?’
The escalator was broken so we had to walk down the steep narrow concrete stairs.
‘Alright I am.’ I said from behind him, ‘But it’s not like that.’
‘Like you said.’
‘So, you’re not shagging him then?’
We clambered down in single file, our heels bashing the ground, continuing our conversation wasn’t possible unless I wanted to yell out my business. And I didn’t.
The tube carriage was half empty, so we got to sit together which, at that exact second, was a treat I could have done without.
‘Is that why you’re so involved?’
I didn’t answer.
A young man started singing ‘Send in The Clowns’ to himself and moving his feet from side to side, I fancied he was in a West End production or a pub cabaret. Didn’t really care which, for a second I shivered, I was in London where people did interesting things, not my home village where nobody did anything. All that possibility. I thought of Elif, her band, her film, her bar, her life. She was someone who’d lived. Till she didn’t. I wiped my eyes. Fuck it, I didn’t know her well but finding out who stopped her having her next adventure was important. She’d recognised something lonely in me because it was in her too.
Rested my head against panel at the end of the seat and shut my eyes for a second. A strange metallic smell that wasn’t unpleasant. The plastic warm on my face.
‘Give me a second.’ Then I let my mind wander.
Back to the summer of wasps. I was fourteen. They were everywhere and the community was obsessed: the restaurant that was forced to close because of an infestation, the shop that couldn’t sell pick and mix because of the greedy imposters and everybody knew somebody who knew a woman that got stung and died. My nan had adopted guerrilla tactics, the backstep was lined with rows of jam jars. Honey water traps choked with stripy corpses. Sam and I had discovered Sad Glitter Nights, the second She Walks In Beauty album, which we played on a loop when we were together.
I’d started hanging around with some teenagers in the neighbouring villages, didn’t particularly like them, but they understood my life because theirs was similar. Excluded from school, parents who didn’t or couldn’t care. Prison, mental health, drug use, the all-consuming grind of poverty. My story wasn’t that, my nan did her best and that was more than good enough. But sometimes I just needed to be with people who didn’t see my dad as a freakshow and my existence as something to be pitied. People who understood.
Half the time we didn’t talk, just drunk, smoked weed, snogged and listened to music. But the offer of more was always there. Harder drugs, sex rather than kissing, adult parties where booze and fags were given as treats and girls were passed around. Predators hung around kids like us, they sensed the gaps in our lives, that our souls were looking for something. My natural wariness kept me away from all that. I belonged to nobody and nobody belonged to me, except nan, dad and Sam. I’d die for the three of them.
Five in the afternoon. I’d spent the day smoking weed and drinking cider at this girl’s house, can’t even remember her name. My mouth was sticky sweet, and I was happy. Sweaty, my plan was to shower, spend a bit of time with nan, and then cycle to Sam’s house.
The bus stopped in traffic and I looked at street below. A group of lads from school, they called themselves ‘The Cross-Fire Crew’, had gathered outside a newsagent. They were notorious in a ‘small village’ kind of a way: famous for starting fights, setting fires and smashing up bus stops.
One of them was kicking someone that lay on the ground then the others joined in. Sam was in their number, but he just stood, arms by his sides. Not participating but probably grateful that he wasn’t the target.
He’d been tagging along with them a lot that summer. I never understood why; their affection could turn to bullying on a whim. He got angry when I pulled him up on it.
‘They used to beat you up every day and now your hanging around with them. You’re better than that.’
‘Maybe I’m just sick of being a walkover.’
I hated it when he got like that, all maudlin and weird and he’d been like it a lot that summer. So, I held his hand and we stood while he lost himself in facts about Nirvana.
The gang started spitting at whoever it was they were torturing. Then they laughed. All except Sam, who still just stood. Like he didn’t want to stay but couldn’t run either.
My buzzy calm gone I pressed against the window for a closer look. Wondered what I should do, if anything.
One of the boys moved away and I breathed out with such ferocity my chest hurt. Their targets gnarly old boots and tatty jeans. The donkey jacket, even though it was boiling. He hadn’t visited in months; last thing nan and I knew he was somewhere in London.
I shouted, can’t remember what, perhaps there weren’t any words and it was just shapeless rage. The other passengers stared at me, horrified. I ran down the stairs and yelled at the bus driver to stop the fucking bus, but he told me he couldn’t, he wasn’t allowed.
‘You have to, I need to help…’
I was going to say my dad, but I didn’t because I was ashamed and the guilt of that still haunts me.
‘I need to help that man.’
‘I can’t stop the bus love, so stop swearing and sit down.’
The bus pulled off slowly because the traffic was awful, then it nearly collided with a van coming in the opposite direction. The driver had overplayed his hand and pulled into our side of the road. He had to reverse, as did the car behind him while our bus driver resolutely refused to move anywhere to help the process. I ran to a seat pressed my hands up against a dirty window and watched my dad try to sit up. Palms out he was trying to defend himself. Christ, he was so pale. So thin. One of the boys slapped him in the face, then two things happened. The guy that owned the shop, an oldish guy called Henry came out and yelled at them. They gave him some cheek but left. Sam stayed. He didn’t help my dad, he didn’t move at all, he just stood with his arms by his sides. Henry was trying to speak to him, but he wasn’t replying. Then he ran. Quicker than I’d ever seen him move before, he just disappeared. He saw them beat up my dad and he’d done nothing.
Then Ollie appeared with Hannah. Shit. Shit. Shit.
I asked the driver again if I could get off. By this point the bus was moving again and he ignored me. I ran back to my seat just as Ollie knelt down to talk to my dad. Hannah stood and watched. I was close to just jumping at the doors to see what would happen but by this point the bus was moving properly and it was only a minute to the next stop.
I’d never seen Ollie do anything kind or nice or sweet and Hannah was a nasty bit of work with a put down for anybody that didn’t meet her exacting standards and that definitely included Sam and me. Sam got upset and pretended to ignore her while I laughed in her face and actually ignored her, but my dad was different. He was so fucking fragile and until that moment I hadn’t properly realised it.
What were they saying to him? What vicious comment was Hannah making, something that would make Ollie laugh. He always laughed at everything she did, no matter how many people she wounded.
The bus stopped and I ran back to the shop. A seven-minute run that I did in four, massive stitch in my side I burst into the shop. Henry knew my family; he and nan went way back.
‘I saw from the bus window, where is he?’
‘He went with the older Debenham-Taylor boy.’
‘Where did they go?’
He shrugged. As I ran out, the doorbell jangled and Henry yelled my name, but I didn’t stop. The only thing I could think to do was to run towards home. Ollie, Sam, Hannah and I all lived in the same village and my nan’s place was the closest. A small house in a strip of council properties on the outskirts. A fifteen-minute walk, I started to sprint again. My side killed. Christ but I needed to smoke and drink less, was fourteen too young for rehab?
Then I saw them. No Hannah. No Sam. Ollie had linked arms with my dad who was limping, and they were chatting. At least that’s how it looked. A couple of feet behind them, I clutched at my stomach, the pain was acute. I was so unfit. I listened and heard Ollie ask my dad if there was a wasp epidemic in London.
‘You’d need a lot of them.’
‘The bloody drama with it, honestly it’s like the end of the world. What if it actually is the end of the world?’
My dad laughed. A small wheezing sound.
They were just talking, passing the time of day. Like normal people do.
They both turned. Ollie stared like he’d never seen me before. A strange look in his eyes.
‘I was running,’ I explained gasping for breath, skin grimy with sweat.
My dad smiled. His whole face lit up and I’d forgotten how happy he could look when he had reason to be. He stumbled a bit and Ollie caught him.
‘I’m ok,’ Ollie let him go, but my dad didn’t even notice, he just focused on me. ‘I got you this.’
He pulled my favourite chocolate bar out of his pocket, then we held each other. His coat smelt of dark, wretched places but I leant against him, breathed hard, took it all in. This is your dad, I thought, he’s back and you’re hugging him.
Ollie stood by us unsure of himself. I mouthed thank you and he smiled.
‘Nice to talk to you Mr Dunne. See you around Lil.’
He’d never called me that before, actually I didn’t think he’d ever said my name before.
Dad stayed a week. We got a family kitten and he named her after the lead singer from The Doors. After he’d gone Nan tucked me into bed like I was a little girl. Morrison purring on the pillow next to me.
‘You’ll have a good life,’ she said, ‘because you are loved.’
The train was pulling into Camden, I’d zoned out for two stops. But I’d pulled it forward, the thing I was trying to remember about Sam. He changed that summer. I saw something in him that hadn’t been there before. And after the incident with my dad he was with that crowd most days.
Ollie changed too. He’d always belittled Sam but suddenly he was being nice to him, supporting him, including him, standing up for him. All that stuff big brothers are meant to do. But Sam didn’t care. He’d gone from wanting his brother’s approval to completely ignoring him and occasionally he even threw an insult Ollie’s way. I just assumed that he was finally realising what a bully Ollie had been and punishing him for it. Not before time either.
Danny let me off the train in front of him. We walked down the platform and up the stairs in silence.
‘Ah Jesus, Lil, would you look at this?’
We were caught in a passenger bottle neck at the bottom of the escalator, Camden station got like that sometimes. A group of young men in wide boy sales exec suits pushed in front of us. Danny tapped one of them on the arm.
‘You sure now son, that you want to do that?’
Whether it was Danny’s general demeanour or the tangible anger of the queue behind us the lad mumbled something, sneered a little but dropped back behind the patiently waiting people, dragging his reluctant mates with him.
‘Tosser,’ Danny mumbled.
I didn’t answer because I had my own stuff to say.
‘You asked me about Ollie?’
‘Yeah, but you don’t have to…’
‘The first time I slept with him I was sixteen and he was nineteen, back from uni. I met him at a club in Poole. That summer we got together a few times in secret because he was with Hannah and I was worried Sam would freak.’
Not my finest hour, sleeping with my best friends loathed brother behind his back.
I spoke quietly, suddenly conscious we were surrounded by people. Danny leant down to hear me.
‘Then I didn’t see again him till the day of my nan’s funeral.’
The events of that night came tumbling out. My tears, his comfort, the streetlights flickering on the white wall of my bedroom. A smell of rose from the perfume I’d worn that day.
‘When I woke up, he’d gone.’
Danny stared at me for a second then put his arm around me.
We didn’t speak and gradually the crowd thinned, and we got our turn on the escalator and fell into a bright white winter day.
Took my time walking back to my bedsit. The high street smelt of drugs and political rant man was back; his solo protest had reached the holding up traffic stage.
Before the end of the wasp summer, the Crew ‘had beef’ with a rival group of morons and the ‘battle to end all battles’ took place in the park.
Both gangs stood in a line and faced each other. Then a member of the opposing crew, Roy Butcher, I knew him a bit from my other group of friends, did an impromptu rap, and the audience of bored teenagers pissed themselves laughing, much to Roy’s shame. I took a different view and kind of admired him for his bravery and self-confidence.
But the humiliation fuelled his anger and before the fight properly started, he’d punched the lad opposite him, Sam, who promptly dropped to the floor, got up and screamed, a harsh, painful sound; then charged at his opponent. Pushed him to the ground and punched, kicked and bit. For a second he was winning but the tide quickly turned because Sam was no fighter.
Roy kicked the shit out of him. But Sam kept getting up, attacking back and then getting annihilated in return. It was like he wanted to be hurt. Like he was getting something from it.
I started shouting at that point just to end it all. A girl yelling ‘Stop it, stop it, it’s not worth it’ was a customary reason to stop any form of scuffle so everyone walked away, egos intact. Except Sam who was taken to hospital.
He had a couple of broken ribs and he refused to tell the police what happened. But I got my friend back. It was like the mad few weeks he spent as a member of the ‘The Cross-Fire Crew’ had never happened. And perhaps that’s why I’d forgotten it, because it really was like it had never happened. I asked him about my dad, and he told me that he didn’t remember that afternoon, that it was all a blur, but he was sorry, and he loved me. That had to be enough.
But I knew, strolling down the street and being cursed at by hurried tourists, that it mattered in a way that it hadn’t before. Because remembering it had told me something about my friend. He was capable of losing it. And whoever it was that had attacked Elif had lost it. Entirely. And God knows Sam had reason enough to turn on his brother no matter what Ollie said about their current relationship. No matter how much he’d tried to make amends.
Yet, it just didn’t seem like something he would do. He picked a fight, years ago, that he knew he would lose because there was something in him that he needed to get out. But battering a woman to death twelve years later and then knocking out his own brother, that was a different kind of losing it. Or was it? I didn’t know and thinking about it made my mind feel scrambled, like a thousand voices were screeching at me, and all I wanted to do was lie down till the noise went away.
Sam and I hung out like we always had till he went away to university. He tried to keep in touch, but nan was ill then. My life got smaller while his was full of excitement. I was so jealous I could barely see straight. But I wouldn’t have swopped, because I wanted to look after my nan. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fucking hard.
Then, after she passed, a door that had always been closed to me was finally open. One that lead to adventure and freedom. My only sadness was she wasn’t around to see me walk through it. The fact that I could only truly live because she had died felt vicious and cruel.
But I had nobody. Nobody had replaced Sam as my best friend or Ollie as the guy who gave me butterflies. And then they’d entered my life again. My feelings towards them were a mix of what they were in the past and the role they currently played. But maybe everybody’s friendships were like that.
All I knew was it mattered. Finding out if my childhood best friend was capable of such a horrifying crime mattered. For him, for me, for what were and for what we might become. That door was open to me and I needed to do this one thing before I was finally free to run through it.