We’re playing statues in the hall. I’m at the front door, trying to sneak up on Angela in her house. Her mum has come into some money and bought her a new outfit, so she looks smart, a blouse with a red bow at the neck and a lime-green colour, which is useful because her barking cough is largely gone, but she still has a cold, with a snotty nose, which she swipes on her sleeve. Her blue pleated skirt covers her knees and white socks her legs, but they tend to worm around her ankles. Black shoes, with silver buckles, have lost their burnished shine, but are a rare treat and make her seem more like a proper wee girl ready to go to school after the summer. The game is more complicated than it should be. A lopsided, torpedoed, Silvercross pram from when Angela was a baby is parked with its blue hood up, like a battleship, half way up the hall, reducing foot traffic to a thin lane. A lack of linoleum to insulate wooden floorboards engrained with dirt from previous tenants tend to squeak, echo off wallpaper, the design of faded roses untended, and with every carefull step I take, Blodger growls. The dog slumps at Angela’s feet, an early-warning system that doesn’t fail. Angela turns and shrieks, ‘Caught you!’ and I have to freeze and start again.
I’m not very good at creeping and Angela is even worse, but we map the traffic not by the number of steps from one end of the hall to the other, or who staggers with the weight of the game and knocks against the wall when passing the pram, or the sound of heavy footfall, or light twinkling steps, but by the sound of laughter. Angela is better at that game than me, but she is contagious. I need to warn her to keep the noise down, her mum is—I think— sleeping in the room they share a bed. When I, eventually, tap her on the shoulder close enough to whiff the smell of shampoo on newly washed hair and hear the panting of her quick shallow breaths her brooding silence was an event. ‘What’s the matter pet?’ I ask.
‘Nothing,’ she says, quietly, biting on her bottom lip, her eyes as big as a cats.
‘That’s it then.’ I slap my hands around her waist, pick her up and run down the hall, with Blodger barking, but wagging its stumpy tail, at my heels. She knows where I’m going, but I warn her anyway. ‘I’m sticking you in the smelly cupboard.’
The smelly cupboard is a cupboard near the door, mausoleum of dead and discarded things. It is chock-a-block with washings that were once going to be done and charts Angela’s growth from dirty nappies to discarded duffle.
She’s giggling when I put her down and I’m laughing. Angela pulls the door open. Only Blodger takes a step forward. We both make a face and take a step backwards, I pinch my nostrils shut, with thumb and forefinger, and I talk through my nose down at her. ‘Pongo,’ I say and nudge the door shut with my foot, which lets us breathe.
‘I’ll put you in the smelly cupboard,’ she shrieks, and grabs the lining on my sleeve and pulls me towards the door.
I play along, getting down on one knee, and raising my fingers in a steeple of mock prayer. ‘Oh, no pretty Angel, I beg you, don’t put me in the smelly, smelly cupboard. I’ll be good. I promise.’
Angela beckons so she can whisper in my ear and I’m beginning to feel the muscles on my face fixing into a grin. I crick my neck and angle my head closer to her solemn wee mouth so no one else can hear.
‘Jaz hurt me,’ she whispers.
‘Where?’ I ask.
Angela pulls her blouse out of her skirt and hooks her thumb under her stained pants. The room door flies open. Angela’s mum marches into the hall, negotiating the chicane of the pram with practiced ease, and looping the belt in her nightgown and tying it together. Karen steps over Blodger. ‘Move,’ she tells Angela, grabbing her by the new blouse backwards and out of her way.
‘Can’t get a minute’s peace to myself,’ Karen mutters. I’m wrong-footed as she picks me up with one hand firmly on the hood of my jacket, and with the other hand, pulls open the cupboard door and shoves me inside, slamming it shut. I fling my hands out to stop myself falling and they feel sticky and oozy and the smell grabs me by the throat and I can’t breathe. I ricochet backwards bouncing off the door behind me and falling forward again to be reclaimed by the sludge. I don’t know how many lifetimes she stands guard with her back to the closed door, but when it finally opens I crawl out, sobbing. I flatten my fingers against my lips, but the smell was a taste, a fist, something gross, my stomach cannot hold. I can’t stop myself boaking on bare floorboards at her red slippered feet.
Blodger barks when she slaps me hard stinging blow across the cheek, knocking my head against the wall. ‘You’ll clean that up, yah dirty wee cunt,’ she warns me.
Blodger nips in and starts supping and eating the sick from the floor in front of my face.
‘Awgh, that’s disgusting,’ she say, turning away, and her robe flashes open. Her tits, aureoles dark as pennies and her nipples baby pink. A vivid red scratch on her stomach. Her heavily made up eyes meet my gaze. She carefully ties up her nightgown.
‘Just like aw the rest.’ There is weariness in her voice. ‘Beat it.’ She nods towards the front door down the hall, carefully tying the belt of her nightgown. I launch myself the few steps down the hall and fling open the door. ‘You’ll learn,’ she says, her words turning into a cough.
‘He’s my friend, not yours,’ I hear Angela shouting, before slamming the door shut.