Tony places the fork carefully back down on the table, beside the butter dish. Clutching his eye, a colourful arabesque, milky with red veins, half- blind, Hunter staggers backwards knocking his chair over. He mourns his loss of sight with an animal keening sound that unravels everyone round about Tony. Bruno, his roommate, laughs, pointy teeth showing masticated bread and sausage as he watches Hunter dance. ‘You’re a psycho,’ he says to Tony with envy in his voice.
Hunter reminds Tony of a childhood toy he used to love, a potbellied green toad. He used to wind it up and watch it jump and croak with a chirrup on the floor, in no particular direction. Hunter’s hip crashes into the girl’s table and the dishes jump. The girl with big boobs picks up two slices of toast and holds them up as if marking a glee-club scorecard. In case the table is overturned, she has prepared, breakfast in hand. Julie catches Hunter and, small as she is, wrestles his head down, clutching his curly hair into perfumed blouse and breasts. The foul-mouthed adolescent becomes a snotty compliant child and leans against her and sobs loudly.
‘You’ll be alright,’ Julie says, stroking his head. ‘Ssshhh, you’ll be alright.’
Bob’s chair screeches backwards as he abandons his seat and his breakfast. He dunts Tony’s shoulder so that he stumbles sideways, but quickly regains his feet and his composure. Bob strides forward, towers above him and pushes him on the shoulder again. ‘Move,’ Bob says, tight-lipped, his eyes narrowed.
Tony is pushed towards the door. In the hall, the girl he’s seen earlier in the toilet comes swanning down the stair, her hair in a middle-parting, her hand gliding down the rail. Another older girl, about fourteen, with blonde hair is talking to her. She sports outsized sunglasses, even though there is no sun and a lavender scarf. ‘What happening Bob, has somebody been killed?’ she shrieks and, in mock hilarity, shares a smirk with her friend.
‘Nothing to worry about,’ Bob says, his tone grey and soporific. ‘Everything’s been taken care of.’ He nudges Tony towards the office door and nips ahead of him, turns the handle of the door and pushes it open. The two girls observe Tony with glinting eyes and renewed interest, before he steps inside and the care worker slaps the door shut behind him.
The florescent light has been left on overnight, but there is plenty of natural light from the windows and the grey carpet is worn at the door, but clean. The office desk is modern, paperwork a work of art on different levels of a Lego-like metallic arms and plastic tier-tray at one end, and the phone at the other. An ashtray full of douts near the swivel chair adds an element of disorder and the sour smell of fag smoke lingers. Bob pulls the phone across as he slides into the seat. He sighs, takes off his glasses and cleans the lenses before picking up the receiver, dialling nine-nine-nine, and giving the emergency services the location of where to send an ambulance.
Tony isn’t sure where to sit. Three faux-leather padded office chairs are in a row, one to his right, where his social worker had sat last night, across from his desk. Tony sits on a far-away seat, near the filing cabinet, on a Bakelite grey chair, where he hunches forward, checking out the garden and listens to a bird call.
Bob strokes the hair on his wispy beard. ‘You do know you’re in big trouble, don’t you?’
They glance at each other. Tony shrugs and looks out the window.
‘I’ll need to inform the police. You’ll be cautioned and need to appear before the Children’s Panel.’ Bob tries a different tack. ‘Hallo-,’ he draws the word out, the seriousness in his voice, dissipating into laughing gas. ‘You can hear me?’ Pauses. ‘You can speak, English?’
Tony turns to look at him and with a slight nod indicates he can.
‘The thing is, I’m not saying Hunter can’t be a bit of a horse’s ass, but there’s ways, and ways of doing things, and that’s not one of them. He could be blind in one eye.’ He swivels and stretches his legs in front of him, ‘you do understand that, don’t you?’ He holds his left hand up and curls it over his ear in an exaggerated fashion, like an old fashioned horn for deaf people, waiting for an answer. He fidgets when it doesn’t come and pulls open the top desk drawer. The phone rings and he answers it and a woman opens the door and comes into the room.
‘It’s for you Alice,’ Bob holds out the receiver and scrambles out of the swivel chair. He mouths, quietly in an exaggerated manner, ‘Social Work Department,’ and skits around the desk. ‘I’ll—’ waves his hand to show what he means, but slips out the door without finishing what he starts saying.
Alice doesn’t look as if she needs any help. She moves like an opera singer, wearing sensible flat shoes. The rayon dress bulges, her stomach overflows and thigh are quickly moulded to the swivel chair. The ashtray is dragged to her side of the table and she wedges the receiver to her shoulder with double-chin and neck, while lighting up. For such a big woman she moves through the scales in a small soft voice, yielding, good-humoured, put-upon, all without a warble, but ultimately sharp and in control. When she comes off the phone she lights another cigarette from the one she puts out. ‘Smoking,’ she says, ‘isn’t good for you and ruins your voice’. Her laughter invites Tony to join her in smiling and giving him his attention, but her good humour isn’t reliant on it.
‘I’ve heard a little of what’s happened,’ her pale green and blue eyes hold no expression, but are pretty enough to make marbles. ‘I’d like to hear your side.’
Tony finds himself yielding, wanting to confide in her, tell her everything that has happened, but he can’t.
She waits with a smile on her lips, holds an index finger up. ‘OK, here’s the deal. I’m not playing down the seriousness of what happened, but Hunter has been taking to hospital. We won’t know the extent of the damage for at least 24 hours. And in that time he’ll be in hospital. Then we’ll need to decide what to do with him - and you.’ Her voice drops into conspiratorial tone and she takes a drag on her cigarette. ‘You can stay here in the meantime, if that’s what you want?’ The swivel chair creaks as she crouches down hands in her lap, tempting him to speak. ‘It is that what you want, darlin’?’
A nod is his reply and when his eyes dart to the window he finds she is still watching him, holding him captive with her presence. A sob escapes from his lips and his head drops into his chest and he melts all the unsaid things bubble up in his chest and in his tears. He hears the rustle of rayon, the steps coming closer and the mixture of perfume and cigarette smoke. Her arms come around his head and she holds him close as if she means it.