Angela stands, waiting. Bob shouts again. ‘Jesus,’ he rants, when there’s no reply and no sign of footfall. ‘You better come in, then.’
She cranes her neck look up at the lobby, and her mouth falls open. The rooms seem white and gleaning and it feels like being inside a cosy department store.
‘Look at your coat,’ he mumbles through wispy facial hair, adjusting the leg on his spectacles so they don’t slope so much on his face, ‘you’re soaked to the skin’. They stand awkwardly together beside the stairs, he stretches his neck, ostrich-like, as if to get his bearings. He mutters some more chook about her being wet and cold, but she’s not really listening, because she spots Tony ambling from the lounge.
She runs to meet him flinging her arms around his legs and pressing her face against his thigh. He strokes her wet hair and picks her up. She’s lighter than he remembers, all the weight seems to hang in her sopping-wet anorak.
‘I need to pee,’ she whispers in his ear. The tips of her right fingers stroke and follow the pattern of his hollowed out cheek.
‘Let’s get you up the stairs. I’ll show you my room. There’s a toilet beside it.’
The same girl Angela has seen earlier, Norma, with a black jaggy feathercut, framing a pretty face, hesitates, before walking past them.
‘That your wee sister?’ she asks.
‘No I’m urnae,’ Angela rolls out her smile. ‘We just live beside each other.’ Then she remembers they don’t and shakes her head from side to side as if to help her think and buries her head in his shoulder.
‘She’s cute as a button,’ Norma says to Tony. ‘I’ve got a wee sister here too.’
Tony nods, ‘Who’s that?’
‘Carla,’ she reaches out and touches the back of Angela’s shoulder. ‘She’s six, about the same age as this one.’
‘I’m nearly five and I can read,’ Angela pipes up, stiff-necked and glaring. ‘And I’ll be going to school after the summer.’
‘Can you take her to the toilet?’ Tony feels the flash of heat in his cheeks as they glow like Christmas lightbulbs. ‘She needs to go.’ His tone is apologetic and he avoids meeting her adolescent and knowing brown eyes.
‘Sure,’ she says.
Angela slides down his chest, regains her legs and dances on the spot to show she is in a hurry. Norma puts her arm out and offers her hand. Tony falls in behind them as they bounce up the stairs, at ease in each other’s company, Angela chattering away and Norma, mostly, listening.
He’s not comfortable sitting on the top step, it’s too much of a thoroughfare for the house and, apart from Bruno, he tends to avoid company. Laughter spills from the bathroom. Carrot walks between lounge and kitchen and gazes up at him. Tony meets the challenge, doesn’t look away. The bathroom door finally opens and Norma and Angela appear.
‘I cleaned her up a bit.’ Norma explains the delay in a breathy voice.
Tony straightens up, not sure what to say. ‘That’s fine.’ He blushes and leans over addressing Angela, ‘Whit dae you want to dae, now?’
‘Pizza Face is outside and he wants to know if you want to play fitba.’
‘How did you know tell me?’
‘I just did.’
‘Who’s Jaz?’ Norma cuts in.
Angela’s head drops and she shuts down like a peerie spinning top that has run out of string.
‘He’s Pizza Face’s brother,’ is the best Tony can come up with.
Norma’s eyes glitter, cold and distant, and she goes to mouth something, but doesn’t. Spinning on wedged heels, she stomps down the hall towards her room.
‘We best get goin’ then, if Pizza Face is waitin’.’ Tony coaxes Angela to follow him with a warm, cajoling tone.
She looks up at him and rewards him with a smile. ‘Can I see where you stay first? Is it true, dae you sleep in a dungeon, with big chains on the wall?’
‘Aye, c’mon I’ll show yeh.’
He nods towards shut doors where his room his. She sidles up beside him as they creep along the hall. He pushes open the door with one finger and as it slowly opens she glances in, she relaxes. But wind pebble-dashes rain against the window and move the curtains and she jumps backward against his legs.
Tony giggles and goes in and sits on his bed. She takes it in her stride and follows him in and her presence seems to take up the space between the two narrow beds and fill the room in a way neither Bruno nor anyone else could.
‘Gimme your jacket,’ he says. ‘And I’ll hing it on the radiator.’
She twirls out of it and skirts past him, pulling open the cupboard door and taking a gander inside. Nothing grabs her attention. She briefly looks at the racing posters. Her anorak steams and fills the room with a damp doggy smell. Under his bed she finds something she can hold onto, pulling out the red cover of a hardback book. She sounds out the name by finger pointing in the way Tony had taught her, but its familiar and the words jump into her mouth. ‘The Big Book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales’.
‘That’s right.’ He makes encouraging noise, his smile, off kilter. His social worker, Marie, had presented it to him in the office downstairs. Wrapped in brown paper, he wasn’t sure what it was at first. It was weighty in his hands. The title familiar. His eyelids had grown red with tiredness from the penumbra of light in his old house and he couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t read fairy stories. His mum had said that he’d ruin his eyes but his brain wasn’t addled. This was a changeling book, a simulacrum. Not his book with the stained and ragged spine, with crinkled pages, some of which were ripped, but all of them were as familiar to him as his feet.
‘I bought that with my own money,’ Marie said.
The bin had rung when he tossed the expensive volume into it, but later it had turned up lying on top of his bed.
She rifles through the pages, her mouth dropping open, looking for the familiar. When she finds what she is looking for she sits on the bed beside him, her legs curling beneath her, feet hanging mid-air.
He puts a hand on her shoulder and kisses her hair when she jerks her face away.
‘Once upon a time,’ she pushes her shoulder against his midriff, gets comfortable, adopts her serious voice, willing him to join in. And he does, until words and cadence trace a familiar twisted path through forests and fields and princes that sleep until they are kissed by princes. And their bodies are entwined in a huddle and they are droopy with sleep and he slaps the cover of the book, shut.
‘Do you remember,’ she says, hand over her mouth, whispering, ‘when I was under the water and all the bells were ringing?’
‘You mean when you were in the canal, drowning?’
‘I want you to take me under the water again, to hear the bells, because I’m sore.’
‘Where are you sore?’
They hear the sound of steps and somebody approaching. Bruno pokes his head into the room. ‘There’s somebody outside playing fitba, and he’s pretty good a keepy-up, says he knows you.’
The book falls from Angela’s lap and bounces on the floor as she stands up. Outside it’s getting dark and the moon peaks through clouds.