Tony shares a room at the top of the stairs with Bruno. ‘He’s a bed-wetter,’ whispers Julie. ‘We may get him up during the night to take him to the toilet.’ Small with chestnut-colour hair, Julie’s pink top, opens at the neck with a glint of a gold crucifix, matches a tight skirt which hobbles her. She smells nice, likes to giggle, catches his shoulder as if to stop herself from falling. She fills in Tony’s silence with explanations of how things in the Home works, what they are going to have for breakfast, how many rooms there are –six- and how many residents – twelve, but that includes Tony – and how much fun he’s going to have. ‘I’ll let you boys get settled,’ she says, swishes her hair and her leaves him with a conspiratorial laugh.
Tony listens to measured and petite steps on the corridor outside their room, fading on the stairs. He undresses, not sure what to do with his clothes, he leaves them lying at the foot of the bed. Wearing his underpants, he hugs himself, but it’s not cold. The hall light has been left on and he checks Bruno’s asleep. The window is pushed up, letting in a draught, but with the radiator on the same wall, near the cupboard and chair, the room is stained with the acrid smell of pee. Only Bruno’s head shows, the rest of him, Tutankhamun, embalmed in blankets, but he makes a snorting, snoring sound from the back of his throat. His hair is mousy-brown, shaved with two bare spots and there are scabs on his head as if he’s been scratching. It reminds Tony when his da shaved his head and because of that he takes a liking to Bruno. Tony steals under the covers and looks up at the motor-racing posters above Bruno’s head.
When Tony wakes it’s the other way about. Bruno is waiting, he watches over him and there are glints of gold in his cat-like eyes. His legs dawdle, his neck sticks out of his red-striped pyjamas, and he perches on a crumpled waterproof sheet. Bedclothes peeled off the mattress, an unravelled ball, clutter the corridor between the beds. His roommate is thin, the biggest part of him is his grin, with yellowish pointy teeth. ‘You’re the new guy,’ he says. ‘I’m Bruno. Whit’s your name?’
Tony returns his gaze but doesn’t say anything. He’s tired of answering questions, but Bruno hums to himself and acts unconcerned. He scratches at the back of his head, stands up and scoops up the load of washing to his chest. ‘I pee the bed,’ he explains and he doesn’t seem fazed by it, as if it’s a fact of life, like being left-handed. ‘I’ll just go and put this in the washing and I’ll come back and get you.’ He clicks shut the bedroom door behind him when he leaves.
Tony gets up and gets dressed in the same clothes he was brought in. He’s dying for a pee, but doesn’t know where the toilets are. He stands by the window, looking down at the run of the wall dividing the back gardens from other terraced gardens and wonders how stupid it would be to open the window and pee. He’d read about that in some book, where they’d just fling stinky stuff out the window and shout ‘Gardyloo’. Wonders if he should just go home, even though he knows his da won’t be there, another part of him thinks maybe his da will be waiting for him. One of the faraway trees has a rope swing, attached to one of the limbs, swaying in the wind. He decides the best thing to do in the meantime would be to go back down to the office at the foot of the stairs and find the same toilet he used last night. His bed is left unmade and he pulls open the room door, at the same time, Bruno pushes and stumbles into the room. The same daft grin is on his face and Tony wonders if he’s not right in the head.
‘Thought I’d come up and get you,’ he says, breathless as if he’s been running. He’s changed out of his pyjamas into a hooped T-shirt with alternative colours of red and blue. A pair of flared denims is tied onto his skimpy frame by a green and gold snake-belt. His shoes are black wedges. ‘We’ve to go down and get breakfast.’ He leads the way, and gives a running commentary of who’s who and what’s what. ‘That’s Hunter’s room,’ he says as they pass a closed bedroom door the same dark blue colour as theirs. ‘He’s a cunt. Don’t mess with him. He shares with Simple Simon.’ He points at the room nearest the stairs. ‘That’s Carrot’s room. He’s awright, but can be a bit of a bawbag. He shares with Drew.’ He slaps his hand lightly on the corbel of the oak bannister and nods with his head. ‘Toilet and up that end that’s where they keep the bitches from hell.’
The girl that steps barefoot out of the toilet is on the cusp on womanhood, a fluffy towel turban covers her hair, pink skin and hint of breast, and she does not look anything like a bitch from hell. Quilted nightgown, over a robe to her feet, overwhelms her, but her blue-green eyes gaze hypnotically at Tony. Her face is delicate as an Old Master’s drawing. ‘Whit you lookin’ at?’ she challenges Tony.
‘He doesnae talk, Norma,’ Bruno cuts in and explains.
Tony doesn’t hang about, he breezes past her and into the damp, lush, perfume heat of the toilet. The water from the bath swirls around black hair in the plug hole.
Bruno sits on the stairs waiting for him until he comes out. He follows him downstairs past the office and into the right. Two breakfast tables have been set up. A box of Cornflakes is in the centre, within hand reach of every chair, with plates and spoons and cups and a jug of milk. Julie sits at the head of one table smoking, an ashtray at her elbow, she watches them coming into the dining room and breaks off her conversation to greet them. An older girl, chubby, round faced with massive boobs munches on toast in the chair opposite Julie, and Tony looks away shyly when she eyes him up, and can’t work out whether she’s staff or a resident.
Bruno guides him to the other table near the window that looks onto the front and side gardens. ‘Hi, I’m Bob,’ mutters an older man, who is definitely staff. A cup of tea and shell of an egg on the plate are spread in front of him and he peers through rimless John Lennon glasses at him. His face is the colour of sand, thin, wispy beard and moustache. He wears a halter top and matching tan corduroys, but sits buttering a half slice of toast, pernickety, as if getting the spread consistently right is a matter of physics and not just whacking it on with a knife.
‘Here, sit here.’ Bruno pulls out a chair, for Tony and one for himself next to it and plonks himself down. ‘He doesn’t talk,’ he tells Bob and grins.
‘Really!’ Bob leans back in his chair. ‘I didn’t know that.’ He looks over at Julie for confirmation, but she’s in conference with the girls at her table. ‘You mean he’s electively mute or he just can’t speak?’ he says to Bruno.
Bruno picks up the Cornflakes packet and fills his bowl to overflowing. ‘Aye, he cannae talk,’ he says to Bob, pulling Tony’s bowl over and filling it with Cornflakes for him. ‘It’s great here,’ he explains to Tony, spilling milk onto the oilskin tablecloth. ‘We’ve got a cook. You get as much to eat as yeh want. You can get sausage and egg and ham when you’re finished. And even orange juice!’
A girl in the next table, not much older than Angela, in a long flannel shirt spoons Cornflakes into her mouth. She glances over at Tony and then her brown eyes flicker away. He smiles at her, picks up a spoon and starts eating his Cornflakes. He follows Bruno’s lead and fills his plate with toast and reaches for the butter. He adds a spread of orange marmalade and sips at his tea. Bruno is up at the hotplate on a table near the door to the kitchen, slapping square-sliced sausages onto his plate like face- cards, when he turns round and freezes. Tony follows his gaze.
A boy about fourteen or fifteen swaggers in, his hand close to his mouth, sucking the cigarette down to the stub. Thick, brown, curly hair, a red Adidas top and denim emphasise the wiry and stocky frame of an adult.
‘Sit over here,’ says Bob, in a blokey tone, pointing with his butter knife to the seat next to Bruno. ‘Where I can keep an eye on you.’
‘That’ll be right, suck on my knob,’ he sticks his tongue like a gobbstopper into the side of his cheek, drags out the seat across from Tony and leans across the table and stubs his fag out in the ashtray.
‘Language,’ Bob chides him, sighing, shaking his head and looking up as if the whitewash of the ceiling has answers to kids that cheek you written on it.
‘Calm doon,’ the boy says. ‘I was only spovving you,’ He looks directly across the table at Tony and kicks his feet.
Bruno slips into the chair next to Tony’s, a plate filled with sausage and egg is in his hand. The boy leans across and picks up a sausage and starts munching it with an open mouth.
‘Who’s this wee poof,’ he says, meaning Tony, scraping a piece of sausage meat from his discoloured molars, with the nail on his index finger.
‘Tony,’ says Bruno. ‘He’s my mate Hunter and he cannae talk.’
‘Fuckin’ great, pissy pants’ mouths Hunter. ‘Another fuckin’ Mongo like you.’ He kicks Tony’s feet harder this time under the table.
‘Watch your language,’ says Bob. ‘There’s kids about.’
‘Keep your hair on.’ Hunter says. ‘Pour us a cup of tee and geez one of your fags and I’ll think about it,’ he snorts with laugher, glaring at Tony.
Tony moves his feet when Hunter tries to kick him under the table again. He chews slowly on a bit of toast and studies the remains of his breakfast. Hunter clatters a plate with sausage and scrambled egg down in front of him. Tony plays with his fork. When Hunter looks up at him again, and sneers, he lunges across the table and jabs his fork into the older boy's right eye.