By Mark Burrow
Anne scrunched up a wet flannel and pressed it against my eye. The coldness made me flinch.
After a few seconds, the throbbing stopped. She acted like she was my mum. “Now you hold the flannel.”
I did as she told me, sitting on the side of the bath, hearing her open the cupboard under the sink.
She rummaged through a shoe box. “It smells of rats in here.”
Anne talked a lot about the rats that summer. She wasn’t alone.
“I saw one running along the balcony yesterday, it was the size of a cat.”
The dustmen were on strike. Rubbish kept piling higher. Pyramids of split plastic bags.
“This will sting.”
I heard the slushing of the liquid against the glass bottle and then she pushed a wet ball of cotton against the graze on my left leg.
“Are you going to tell me who did this to you?”
The throbbing sensation came back. I handed her the flannel and she soaked it under the tap. She then passed the cold flannel to me, dried her hands on a small towel smeared with toothpaste, and doused a fresh ball of cotton with antiseptic. “Who did this?”
“Lives in the flats opposite.”
“Well, it’s got to stop. This is out of control.”
She could have asked more questions. I was grateful she didn’t.
I wondered if Anne cared about me. My real mum left when I was little. She promised to come back and take me with her to the countryside. We talked on the phone and she named the day and time she was coming. Dad helped me pack a suitcase. I was allowed to take one big toy and a few tiny ones. I stood on the balcony, waiting for a blue car to arrive, driven by a man I didn’t know.
I waited for mum. I went downstairs and stood by a bollard, holding my suitcase, as if standing nearer to the road would make them come faster. The heat of the afternoon faded. My heart leapt when I saw a blue car turn into the estate. I started waving and then realised the car was driving straight by. An old lady in the passenger seat stared at me through the glass.
Dad appeared and touched my arm. ‘She’s not coming, son. I can’t get her on the phone. Afraid you’re stuck with me.’
He walked me back to the stairwell in the block of flats where we lived. The locks on my suitcase popped open and my toys fell out with my clothes. To me, they resembled a load of broken promises.
Dad told me to see the funny side. ‘If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, son.’
He wasn’t laughing.
Dad and Anne shouted at each other. Anne said I had to take dad to the flat where Bobby lived. I was on dad’s side, saying we shouldn’t go. Anne didn’t listen. Dad told me to stay out of it.
I slipped into my fake Adidas. They had two stripes, instead of three. Dad laced up his boots.
“This can’t go on,” said Anne, slamming the door behind us.
I wasn’t sure if she was referring to me or something else.
I traipsed behind dad on the balcony. He was slouching, hands in his pockets and muttering to himself. When we reached the stairwell, he swivelled round: “Don’t tell your mum, but I lost my job.”
I wanted to say that Anne wasn’t my mum. We walked down the concrete stairs. The air on the ground floor, with high rises looming all around us, was saturated with the smell of rubbish. Dad hooked his t-shirt over his nose. I was used to the cabbage stink. We passed the pile of bags where Bobby punched me. Bobby couldn’t take a joke.
“Look at the size of that bugger.” Dad pointed to a rat.
We entered the block of flats and walked up to the third floor. Bobby’s mum sat in the doorway on a deck chair. She wore a pink cotton smock. She had long, greasy brown hair. There was a tattoo of a dagger stabbing a heart on her right arm. She sucked on a coke-flavoured jubbly and fanned herself with cardboard ripped off a toy box. Dad started talking. I seriously didn’t want to be a part of the conversation, so I looked out towards the flats and the tower block. The windows and bricks were tinged the same deep orange colour as the setting sun.
“I want to have a word with you about my boy.”
Bobby’s mum went on the defensive. “What’s your boy got to do with me?”
“Check out the state of his face.”
I was made to turn round like an exhibit.
The mum smirked.
“All I’m asking is for your boy not to smack him around.”
“It’s not on.”
She crunched ice from the jubbly and shouted, “Bobby, come down here.”
It was a girl’s voice. Dad was confused. He tapped me on the shoulder and we exchanged looks.
Bobby came to the doorway. She was short and chubby. Her hair was flame coloured like the evening sun. “What’s he doing here? Get away or do you want more licks?”
The mum raised her hand for her daughter to stop mouthing off. “Tell them what he did.”
“Because I’m telling you to.”
“He was running around with a rat stuck on the end of a stick. It was disgusting. The stick went through the rat’s mouth and eyeball. So, I told him to stop and he goes and shoves this rat stick right in my face. So, I took the stick off him and gave him licks.”
The mum nodded.
I thought dad was going to back down. We didn’t have a leg to stand on. I don’t know what came over him.
“That’s your attitude, is it? Two wrongs make a right? You call that parenting?”
The mum handed the jubbly to Bobby and dropped her cardboard fan. “Do what?”
“She was sticking up for herself.”
“She went too far.”
“Teach your boy to stand up for himself and he won’t get hit by a girl.”
“Don’t tell me how to raise my kid.”
“But you’ll stand there telling me how to raise mine?”
I tugged dad’s t-shirt.
Bobby chipped in, “That’s right, you better go, you weedy grizzling.”
Dad snapped at her. “You can shut your mouth.”
Big mistake. I felt the atmosphere change the second he said it.
Bobby’s mum pushed herself up. The deck chair wobbled under her weight. She wiped her sticky hands on her smock and then punched dad on the nose. I fell backwards as dad staggered against the balcony. She charged him and he threw a hook that caught her on the ear. They both fell to the floor and wrestled. She sunk her teeth into his arm. He pushed her upwards and kneed her in the fanny. A Rasta, who lived next door, rushed out and dragged them apart. Dad’s nose was dripping blood. I took off my t-shirt and handed it to him. The shoulder strap on the mum’s smock was torn and her white bra was showing. I pulled dad away and Bobby shoved her mum indoors.
We stopped in the stairwell, away from the other tenants who had stepped onto their balconies at the sound of screaming and hollering. Dad breathed heavily. He checked his forearm. There was a bite mark. He pulled out his pack of cigarettes, found one that wasn’t broken and lit it, tilting his head back and sopping blood with my t-shirt.
“I should have told you Bobby’s a girl.”
He didn’t reply.
We walked across the estate. Rats scuttled close to the walls. I wondered what they dreamed about when they slept. Fields of rubbish and carcasses stretching to the horizon. Maybe this estate was a kind of heaven for vermin. We walked up the stairwell. When we arrived at the front door, Dad played pat-a-cake with his pockets. “Do you have a key?”
He tossed a cigarette over the balcony and tried to flick the letter box. The flap hardly budged as it was attached to a tight spring. He banged on the door’s wired glass with a fist.
Anne opened it. Dad was holding my t-shirt against his busted nose, blood splattered down his front. I was bare-chested and covered in cuts and bruises.
“You’ve got to be pulling my leg?”
I followed dad in. Anne went off on one. She accused me and dad of all sorts. I wondered if I should have ‘fessed up from the start about running around with a rat on a stick. I didn’t see what I’d done wrong. It was supposed to be funny. It wasn’t my fault Bobby couldn’t take a joke.
Anne locked herself in the bedroom. Dad went to the bathroom and sat on the side of the bath. I soaked a flannel under the cold tap and handed it to him so he could wipe the blood. I then pulled off strips of cotton from the pack under the sink. He stuffed balls into his nostrils, trying to act like it didn’t hurt.
He touched my arm and smiled. There was a disconnect between his smile and the look in his eyes. His expression reminded me of when mum left. My real mum. Not the two stripe one.
Some people, they go and never come back.