Alfie Mulligan, fourteen, already over six feet tall and the proud owner of beaded, collar-length dreadlocks, is either ‘troubled’ or ‘trouble’, depending on who you listen to. His mum, Flora, had him at sixteen and has gone out most nights since he was five looking for love and the chance for another child. She’s been cheated of both several times over. But, if at first you don’t succeed…
Things aren’t exactly going well for Alfie at school, either. His lifelong ambition is to be a poet, but many of his teachers are convinced he’ll end up in prison. His PSE teacher, Miss Newgate, in particular, is determined to literally bully him in to giving up. Fortunately for him, his English teacher Miss Stewart and new girlfriend Annika both know what’s going on and they refuse to let that happen.
Alfie’s not so sure. Something tells him Miss Newgate could be right. Is he as useless as she claims? Only when the worry begins to make him ill- and he finally faces up to the truth enough to tell his mum- do they both begin to realise that self-belief starts with looking in the mirror and excepting what you see there. And that, maybe, impossible dreams can come true after all.
“Don’t Talk to Me About Love
“What’s it all about….Alfie?”
His mum used to sing that to him when he was little, when he came home from playgroup in a strop, or woke up in the night, crying. Just the first line, mind.
She’d named him Alfie, not so much for the film- she had no patience for Michael Caine or Jude Law- but for the song. For its message that it didn’t matter how bad things got as long as somebody loved you.
Alfie’s mum had had a succession of boyfriends. Some of them mad, most of them bad and all of them dangerous to know. None of them lasted.
Alfie’d never told her he was fed up with it, not to her face, but she’d kind of worked it out for herself. It was true what they said. Actions spoke a hell of a lot louder than words.
Like the time a few weeks ago when he’d come home with his long dark hair twisted in to octopus-leg dreadlocks, studded with dark blue and purple beads that rattled along his denim jacket collar. Mum had looked at the ancient school photo of him with a gappy grin and a French crop and winced. “ Alfie Sean Mulligan, what am I going to do with you? Eh?”
His mum’s name was Flora, Flora Ann It suited her.
Whether that was good or bad he didn’t know.
Today, when he got in, his mum was doing the washing-up. He padded quickly and quietly across to his room to change, shrugging off his uniform and pulling a blue and white checked shirt, jeans and his favourite blue jumper from the drawer. Much better
When he was decent, he went back in to see Mum. “Hey,” he said, and waved. But, she ignored him.
Her hips wiggled slightly in time to the Janet Jackson song on the radio. He cringed , but at least Janet Jackson made a change for the endless Burt Bacharach and Phil Spector CDs. She’d never heard of ‘overkill’.
He was still for a bit, watching her, as her pink false nails clinked against the chipped china plates in the almost prehistoric enamel sink. He liked how she looked from the back; like Jane Asher, only younger and prettier, her red hair brushing her favourite black top as she reached for the tea towels. She’d got them in a charity shop, at twenty p a go, and the previous owner blatantly hadn’t bothered to wash them properly. Added, to, which they were cream with lime green stripes. Classy. Not.
He took a few steps towards her, and placed his hands over her eyes, his jumper sleeves brushing her cheeks. It was a game they’d played before. But not now, not for ages. “Guess who?”
Flora Mulligan squealed and jumped, her heels landing on the laminate floor with a noise like a cap gun going off. “God, Alfie, what are you doing? You gave me such a fright!”
“I was only playing,” he muttered, feeling about six years old. “God’s sakes!”
They sat down at the kitchen table and Alfie tried not to stare, yet again. Someone should tell Mum that top was way too low.
“So, how was school?” She asked. Her pale, freckled hand reached out to stroke his tanned one
“OK.” He pulled his hand away and shrugged, glad lying had come easily for once. “Mum…?”
“ Did you always know we were gonna stay here so long? Right from when we moved in, I mean?”
His mother chuckled. “Where does this stuff come from? No, I don’t think I’d thought that far ahead. Why?”
Most of Alfie’s memories were connected with the flat. Well, it wasn’t technically a flat. It was a houseshare.
Each floor of the house had two bedrooms, a kitchen and a toilet and shower room so small it felt like you were on an aeroplane.` He and his mum had the ground floor, the next for up was students, and the top bit belonged to a couple of Yuppie-types with jobs somewhere in North London and enough money to eat out in Mum’s restaurant five nights a week. She served them once.
They didn’t tip.
Alfie’s very first memory was of moving in here when he was three: sitting in the hallway, getting scratched by the ` green nylon carpet and playing with a rocket Mum had made him out of a kitchen roll tube, bits of Weetabix packet, sweet wrappers and sugar paper. Trying to keep his blast off noises` to a minimum so she could concentrate enough to sign the lease. If he kept nice and quiet, she said, she’d take him for ice cream afterwards. She did, too.
Rocky Road. His favourite.
“I’m just going out for a while, OK?” His mum broke in to his memories.
He realised, with a jolt `that it was after six and his stomach was growling, big time. He wondered if Mum had noticed. Probably not.
She came clacking in on her highest, shiniest strappy heels. The ones that looked like working girl shoes.
He watched her ferret in her handbag for eyeliner and blinked, confused. “But, Mum, it’s Wednesday. You don’t work Wednesdays.”
“Who said I was working?”
Alfie sighed and glared at her; if she was out this late on a school night and wasn’t working, then that meant she’d be out on the pull Again.
As well as the too low black top, she’d changed her washed out jeans and girly rhinestone belt for a shimmery red fishtail skirt that hugged her hips. “Just down to The White Heart.” She was saying breezily, blending concealer over the bridge of her nose. “I won’t be long.”
“Oh, Alfie!” She scolded gently, giving one of his dreads a playful tug since she couldn’t ruffle his hair anymore. “ Don’t be silly!”
“No,” he insisted. He knew `his voice sounded childish and whiney. But, he also knew he didn’t care. “You’ve got to promise.”
“OK, OK, I promise!” She was huffy and flustered, now yanking at the zips of her ox-blood leather jacket with the nails she’d repainted to match. “Will you get off my case? Christ!”
Her red mouth sagged, then. “I’m sorry, precious! Need a cuddle?”
She didn’t wait for an answer, just threw her arms round him and pulled him close. He could smell sweet milky coffee, the apple tang of her detangler spray, and Charlie perfume. Smells like a fingerprint.
“There’s one of those sweet-and-sour chicken dinner things in the freezer, if you want tea. Frozen peas in the second drawer.Alright?”
She hard-shoe-shuffled down the hallway-avoiding coats and bags and discarded Smurnoff Ice bottles. She blew him a kiss, a la Marilyn.
“Bye-bye, trouble. Don’t wait up.”
“ Wide Boy”
Alfie was sat in the window alcove in the Science block writing when Miss Stewart came past. Mrs Bandanha, the pink and gold salwaar-kumeez clad head of R.E. and Mr Body, the Science GCSE teacher, had bustled past already, like people on casters.
And they said teenagers were lost in their own worlds
Miss Stewart was different.
She was young and caring and so cool she made it look easy: in brown ankle boots, a fringed denim skirt, embroidered suede jacket and ‘Bike Across Cultures’ T-shirt. She stopped at the alcove and sat down “Hi, Alfie.”
He put his notebook down and grinned. “Hey, Miss.” Then, he saw the creased, anxious expression on her face. “Miss? What’s wrong?”
“Any chance of telling me why you…” He could see her trying to find `exactly the right phrase. Typical English teacher. “Why you marched out of Citizenship earlier?”
“Ask the Wormword scrubber.” Came the reply.
Miss Stewart sighed, a long sigh the caused a minor storm in her blonde fringe. “I’m not asking Miss Newgate, am I? I’m asking you.”
Alfie decided he might as well tell her. After all, she was doing a good impression of someone who gave a toss. “ You know we’ve got to choose our options this term?” Miss Stewart nodded. “Well, when you do it, they give you a form, don’t they? And you’ve got to put what you wanna do when you leave school. Then tick you options off.”
Miss Stewart nodded again. “Go on.”
“Well I put ‘poet’, didn’t I? And Miss Newgate sees and she goes: Do you really think that’s wise Alfie Mulligan? I think you xhould set your sites a little lower, don’t you? Stupid cow!”
Miss Stewart shook her head.in disbelief. Some people want their heads examining, her look said. “ What did you have for breakfast today, Alfie?” She asked suddenly.
“Just coffee, Miss, ” he muttered, looking at his feet. They’d only had Mum’s red top milk left but he’d made himself his usual white coffee anyway. He took two mouthfuls and decided it was grim. The rest went down the sink.
Now, they were out of coffee, too. Brilliant plan!
Miss Stewart grinned at him. It was a sly secret sort of a grin.
“Wait here a sec, would you, Alfie?” And she walked off in the direction of the canteen.
She returned a few minutes later with a paper bag in one hand and a paper coffee cup in the other. She handed him the cup and he slurped gratefully. The bag had an egg salad sandwich in it and a flapjack. How had she guessed?
He beamed. “Cool! Thanks, Miss!”
Miss grinned back. “You’re welcome.”
Alfie was halfway through his first sandwich before he remembered his manners and fumbled in his pockets for change. He dredged three pound coins and two twenty ps up from somewhere and handed them over. But, Miss Stewart stared him down.
“Put that away.”
Alfie blushed and swallowed his mouthful hard. “Look, Miss, I know it’s short…”
“Alfie, I\ don’t want your money. I bought you lunch as a favour. I don’t need a Thomas Chasterton on my hands, OK?”
“Do what, Miss?”
To his amazement, she giggled, a soft titter like the girls at the back on his bus home.. He didn’t know teachers could giggle like that. “Sorry, English boffin’s joke. Thomas Chasterton was a young poet in the 19th century who made so little money he starved to death.”
“ Thanks, Miss!”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going all Miss Newgate on you.” She got up and stretched, smoothing her skirt and unrucking her tights. “And remember: ‘Nolite tes bastardes carborumderum.’ Alright?”
And, just to make sure he understood, she whispered the translation, quietly and clearly, in to his ear.
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
Alfie knew what the rest of the kids in his year thought about him and Miss Stewart. Girls carolling behind him in French:
“Alfie and Deborah, sitting in a tree
God, how old were they all! Five?
And, anyway, it wasn’t like that. He wasn’t crushing on her! He wasn’t!
She just understood, that was all. He could trust her, talk to her, properly. About Mum and schoolwork and girls and writing and…well, stuff. A damn sight more than Miss Newgate, that was for sure. And Mrs Philips, the Food Tech teacher, who was meant to be his head of year. Fat lot of good she was! Mrs ‘dear-oh-dear-Alfie, must-try-harder.’ Sod that!
He was going to do his best in his exams, though. He’d probably dip out on most them anyway, but he’d promised Miss Stewart he’d at least try when the time came. She’d be proud of him then.
He stopped off at the big German supermarket on the way home and filled a trolley with supplies. Bread, eggs, cheese, green top milk, tuna, tomatoes, apples, bananas, frozen veg, pasta, coffee Weetabix… He chucked a couple of packets or Angel Delight in, too. And some strawberries.
Mum could make them in to a special pudding. If she wanted.
Mum was sitting on the sofa, sipping rosé as he unpacked the shopping, the CD player on soft. He strained to hear what was on
“ ‘What do you get when you kiss a guy?
You get enough germs to catch pneumonia.
After you do, he’ll never phone ya:
I’ll never fall in love again.’”
Bobby Gentry- uh-oh. One of those moods.
So much for a special pudding.
“Because the Night”
Mum wasn’t a bad person. Her priorities were just kind of squewiff.
He remembered the first time she’d ever left him by himself. He was five, just, and she’d promised to let him stay up and watch Toy Story on the portable telly-video-thing she kept in her bedroom. She’d be back by the time it finished. She was just popping out.
If he really needed anything, she said he could ask the people on the top floor .It was another family then: a mum and a dad and a little girl with butterfly hairslides and an American-sounding name. Kelsey or Paige or something. “Be good, Alfie. Mummy loves you. OK?”
She looked beautiful that night. She wore white linen trousers, a turquoise strappy stripy top with a lacy neck and high-heeled white boots. She’d done her hair up in a clip and put her Celtic cross round her neck. “Wow!” He said.
She’d laughed and clipped him round the ear. Just pretend
He listened to the sound of the door banging shut, the key scritching at the lock, the chain rattling. He walked through in to her bedroom and lay on her bed on his belly, his feet brushing the satin duvet cover, staring at little blank screen. Waiting for her boots to go past before he pressed ‘play’.
He’d watched the film six times through by the time he heard the door open again. Mum padded in in her pop-socks, threw her jacket over a chair. “Hey, what are you still doing up?”
Alfie had just thrown his arms around her, too relieved and too knackered to do much else. “You’re a very cuddly boy today, aren’t you?” She chuckled. “ I love you, too, precious. Now, come on, bed.”
He whined softly, legs pincering round her waist. When he spoke, his voice was a slurred mumble. “Want your bed tonight.”
“OK, trouble.” She eased off his socks and pulled back the duvet. “ In you get!”
He curled up in a ball as she tucked him in, stray thoughts fluttering over his eyelids.
“Guessamuch I love you.”
Alfie heard Mum chuckle, felt her hair brush his forehead, her fingers pinch his cheek.“How much?”
He stretched his arms out as wide as they would go. “This much!”
“I love you that much too, Alfie.”
She kissed him softly on the forehead and pulled the curtains closed. The sky was the colour of a Tequila Sunrise. “It’s time to go to sleep.”
“You too?” He gave a huge yawn.
“Me, too. Sleep tight.”
“ The Message”
Alfie opened his notebook at a blank page. Slam Club was about to start
Someone nudged him gently and he looked up to see a tall, honey blonde figure in a black minidress, silver leggings and leopard-print boots. He put the notebook away even though he didn’t need to, fumbling suddenly “Hey, Anika.”
“Hiya,” Anika murmured shyly, dropping in to the seat beside his.. The badges on her school bag rattled as reached for her ‘first aid kit’- the things she always needed to have around when she was writing. Her special pen, one of those posh ones that wrote in four different colours. Her notebook, a highlighter, a caramel wafer and a bottle of water. Dead organised.
She set everything out neatly and then smiled at him.
“I still can’t get used to you with dreads. It looks cool, though..”
Alfie felt the colour flood his face. He wanted to say he thought she looked pretty cool too- really cool, actually. He wanted to ask her if he could buy her a coffee later. They could sit and look over each other’s poems or something, swap ideas.
But, all that came out was…
“Like your boots.”
Anika laughed, but she wasn’t being nasty. “Alfie Mulligan, is that your way of asking me out?”
“Dunno,” he mumbled gruffly. “Might be. Maybe .”
“See you for coffee, later, then,” she said. “Maybe.”
“OK, guys,” Toby, the gangly, jolly bloke who ran the Slam Club clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention. There was a short silence. “I’m\ gonna hand some sheets round, alright? No big deal: just something for people to have a look at. Grab one and pass it on.”
A wadge of photocopies made their way sluggishly across the room. Alfie grabbed one, scanned it quickly. “Look at this.”
Anika sneaked a glance over his shoulder. “The Pool Players: Seven at The Golden Shovel,” she read. “Random title.”
Her eyes took in the skinny little poem and Alfie watched them widen in surprise. “Oh, wow!”
“I know. Pretty cool, eh?”
“Yeah, cool,” Anika agreed. “Kind of scary, too, though.”
“How d’you mean?”
“Like, this bit here.” Alfie heard the squeak of her highlighter as she coloured three-and-a-half lines in pink. Like in double English
“Swot,” he teased.
“You can talk! Miss Stewart’s star pupil.”
It sounded OK when she said it.
She elbowed him in the ribs and read the lines out. “’We sing sin.
We thin gin.
We jazz June.”
He shrugged, rocking his chair on to its back legs. “So?”
“So: all these seven guys seem to care about is hanging out, bragging about how great they are, playing pool and getting bladdered. Not much of a life.” Her eyes seemed to magnetise his Reading his mind. “Is it?”
To be honest, it had sounded a good life to Alfie. A better one, at any rate. But, he daren’t tell Annika that.
“I Feel like Buddy Holly”
Alfie’s dad had been an older man. Older than sixteen, anyway- he didn’t know how much older and he didn’t want to. ‘Dad’ had introduced Mum to easy listening, French kissing and tequila. In that order.
They’d lived together for a bit, but he’d not been so keen once he discovered she was pregnant. The trouble was, her parents weren’t exactly dancing a jig, either. So, she made a fuss and got a council flat and they stayed there, until Alfie was three.
End of story.
“Earth calling Alfie, come in please.”
He felt Anika tug his sleeve. “Are we ever going to have this coffee?”
“Sure. What d’you want?”
“I’ll have a mocha, I think.`” She blushed slightly. “I can have something more basic, if that’s easier.”
“Anika, will you stop stressing?! I can pay for a coffee, you know! Way to make a guy feel good.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean… I just thought since it’s so expensive in here… You know?”
“I’ve taken out a bank loan,” He told her, grinning. “It’s fine.”
Alfie came back from the counter with a latte, a mocha and a saucer with two slabs of rocky road on top. He jerked his thumb at the saucer. “My treat.”
“Looks yummy.” Anika grinned. “What, er, exactly is it?”
“Come off it: you’re not telling me you’ve never had a piece of Rocky Road?”
“It’s biscuit and marshmallow and chocolate chips and Malteasers all smothered in chocolate. There’s an ice-cream version, too. Mum used to buy \me it when I was a kid.”
He blushed. “Too much information. Sorry.”
“No, no, it’s OK.”
She suddenly sat up straighter. “Let’s play ‘Twenty Questions’”
“Promise you won’t laugh?”
Anika shook her head.
He waited for the giggle. But, it didn’t come
“OK. Your turn now. Favourite…song?”
“ I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight by Richard and Linda Thomson.”
“They’re this folky couple who were making records in the ‘70s. That song was the title track of their first album. It’s a love song but it’s not all cute. It’s just real.”
Alfie thought of Mum and her Burt Bacharach CDs; with their songs that promised love would be a little miracle in a heart shaped box. That dream hadn’t exactly got her anywhere.
He looked at Annika across the table, at her patient, open face and sunshine smile. Mum might not have had her shot at real love yet, but, maybe his was coming.
“Every Day I Write the Book”
“Alfie Mulligan, what do you think you’re doing?” Miss Newgate was hovering over Alfie like the Ghost of Christmas Future. Only a whole lot gobbier.
Logically, he knew that all he had to do to get her to back off was stand up. At four foot eleven, Miss Newgate barely came up to his waist.
But, the churny, going-down-in-a-lift-way-too-fast feeling in his stomach had nothing to do with logic .Miss Newgate might be small. But she was tough.
“Put that book away,” she told him. Her voice was soft and low. Dangerous.
Alfie concentrated on the verse he was writing. Watching the strokes his pen made.
His hand was suddenly empty and all he could do was watch Miss Newgate – his notebook in her hands. She bent both sides all the way back until she broke the spine, sending little pieces of metal pinging to the floor like shrapnel. She took the pages and ripped them into confetti one by one, then shoved them as far down into the bin as they could go. She dusted her hands on the knees of her tights. And turned back to the blackboard.
Alfie didn’t know how he got out of the classroom door, down the corridor and out of the big wooden main doors. Nobody stopped him.
Somehow, he ended up standing outside the White Hart. The landlord took in his school uniform. “Sorry, son, no kids in here. Bring your mum next time.”
Alfie was babbling suddenly. “I wasn’t after a drink, honest. I just need somewhere to … sit for a while. Is that OK?”
The landlord appraised him coolly. He was a big, burly guy with a shaven head. Judging by his tattoos he’d probably been a sailor once. “You being bullied, son?”
This seemed like the easiest answer, so Alfie nodded.
The landlord gave him a small smile. “Do you want a Coke and a packet of crisps while you’re sitting?”
“Er, yeah, please.”
“Ready salted, please.”
Alfie was finishing the last of his coke, when he noticed a girl standing in the doorway. She had long blonde hair and a school sweatshirt was tied like an extra skirt round her waist. Anika.
He thought about running away: Anika might be his girlfriend, but he didn’t want her sympathy. It wasn’t like she could do anything, anyway.
“Shantel told me what happened,” Anika said, coming over. She put an arm round him. “I’m sorry”
Alfie didn’t want to hear about “sorry”. What was the good of “sorry”? It wouldn’t protect him. It wouldn’t stop Miss Newgate.
“You’ve got to tell someone.” Anika grabbed his wrist. “If you don’t tell, that makes it OK. And it’s not. It’s wrong.”
“Alright, clever dick.” Alfie’s voice came out angrier and sarkier than it needed to be. “Who exactly do you want me to tell?”
Anika went red. “I don’t know. The Head, maybe.”
Alfie snorted. “Oh, course he’s really gonna believe me, isn’t he? Miss Newgate’s a teacher. They’re all gonna to be on her side. It’s like a little gang, in that staff room. And gangs look after their own.”
“You could tell Miss Stewart.”
So, that was how Anika ended up dragging Alfie back to school and standing with him as he banged on the door of Miss Stewart’s office. When she answered, he said: “Miss, I think I’ve got a problem.”
“An Englishy problem or a life problem?” she asked him, smiling.
“A life problem.” Then, before his courage failed him.
“I’m being bullied.”
It was chaos, then. Miss Stewart dragged Alfie inside her office and gave him some coffee and Viennese whirls from her private stash. “I heard about the incident this morning.” Her body was tight all over. “I’ve a good mind to tell Mr Somerton exactly what kind of staff he’s employing. The irony is not lost on me “
The thought of facing the Head, who already treated him like something you’d step over, or on, depending on your mood, turned Alfie white. “Don’t, Miss! You’ll make it worse.”
“I know how you feel, Alfie.” Miss Stewart lowered her voice to a whisper. “I was bullied, you know. Not by a teacher, but …”
Alfie and Anika were aghast. “You?”
“Yes, me; I know it’s hard to believe – most people think I’m like Teflon. Nothing sticks. But I worked hard at it.” She gave Alfie a searching look that made him uncomfortable. “The bullying can only stop when you stop pretending. No matter what you think about yourself you do not deserve to have your life made a misery. Do you understand?”
Miss Stewart placed her hands against the pocket of her jeans. “I’m going to make a deal with you. I will respect your wishes and I won’t tell anyone what happened this morning.” She paused, as Alfie sighed with relief. “But, if something like that happens again, tell me and I will let Miss Newgate know I know. Not out loud, but there are ways. If there’s a third incident, I am going straight to Mr Somerton. Understood?”
“Yes, Miss,” Alfie muttered.
As he went out the door, Miss Stewart collared him. “You’re a wonderful talented person, Alfie. No one should make you doubt that. Ever.”
At least it was Wednesday. Mum took him out on Wednesdays. After-school coffee and ice-cream, just the two of them. Even when she was seeing someone.
In the days when he was too little for coffee, he’d have hot chocolate . He’d sip the chocolate and pop a spoonful of Rocky Road in his mouth, loving the mixture. Hot and cold.
“Sorry, precious,” Mum said when he got home. “No ice-cream today.”
Alfie felt like she’d decked him. “Why?”
“I’ve got to go to work. I told Gillian I’d do extra. Do you mind?”
It was the world’s stupidest question but, to know that, Mum would’ve had to care about the answer. Of all the Wednesdays in the entire fourteen ducking years he’d been on the planet, why did she pick this one to go to work? He wanted safety, a way to forget about the bad stuff. And Mum was messing that up.
“I can’t let Gillian down,” she was saying now.
The anger rose from Alfie’s belly so quickly it was like throwing up. “So, it’s not OK to let Gillian down but it’s OK to throw me off whenever? Yeah, that really works.”
He felt bad even as he said the words. “You’re such a suck.”
Her face was hurt and trembly when she turned to look at him and he felt like a complete git. She didn’t say ‘I love you’.
When he heard the door slam, he reached for the mobile he was supposed to use for emergencies only. Punched in Anika’s mobile number. Please pick up. Be in. Please!
Nope, answerphone: wasn’t that just bloody typical? ‘I’m sorry, but the person you have called is not available’ Even the computerised voice sounded smug.
Then, the mobile rang. “Hello, this is Anika Jasperson, who’s this?” Even when he was this strung out, Alfie found it kind of strange that she said ‘Jasperson’ and not ‘Yasperson’. “Anika it’s Alfie. Can you…?”
His teeth felt stuck together and there was an off, metallic taste in his mouth. “ Can you come round?”
There was a thoughtful pause at the other end. “Is this about earlier today?”
“Give me…half an hour-ish” Anika said. “I’ll cycle over.”
While he was waiting, Alfie plugged his iPod in to the stereo and fiddled with the click-wheel until he found a track dark enough to suit his mood. Heart-Shaped Box by Nirvana- yeah, that would do. He flopped down on to the sofa, found the stereo’s remote and pressed down hard on the volume control.
If Mum could wallow, so could he.
By the time Anika appeared#, the iPod had moved on to something more upbeat- Teenage Kicks by the Undertones. Thank God he’d remembered to push the ‘shuffle’ button.
She was carrying a brown cotton shopping bag stuffed with tortilla chips, Cadbury’s Roses, Pepsi and-yes- Rocky Road icecream!
“Thanks,” Alfie said.
Anika shrugged her shoulders. “I wasn’t sure what you’d want. I knew about the ice-cream, obviously, but I kind of guessed with the other stuff.”
“That’s OK. You, er, wanna sit down?”
She collapsed in to the nearest armchair while Alfie turned the stereo down and hunted around for plates, bowls and spoons. He busied himself opening packets and pouring drinks and came in with a glass of Pepsi in each hand and a couple of plates balanced on his forearms. Anika giggled and clapped like a little kid. “Where did you learn to do that?”
Smirking just a little, he put the plates down. “It’s in my genes. Mum’s a waitress, remember?”
The slow chug of a bassline began as the iPod switched to another track. “ I know this one,” Anika murmured distractedly.
“You should do- it’s the one you told me about the other night. That Richard and Linda Thomson one.”
“Where did you get it?”
“Downloaded it off the Net. Don’t tell Mum, though. She’d kill me..”
There was a pause, huge and lead-heavy. Alfie coughed.
“ Mum.. look, she doesn’t know. About the Miss Newgate thing. And don’t tell her, Anika, OK? Please.”
There was a day when he was six when Mum asked him if it would be OK if she had another baby. He thought for a bit.
“ Would I get to be a big brother?”
He grinned. “Then, it’s OK.” He thought a bit more, then asked:
“Can it be a girl? A little sister? The baby?”
“It could be,” he mum hedged. “We’ll see.”
Excitement tickled Alfie all over. “And I think, if it’s a girl, she should have a name that begins with ‘F’. Like yours.”
“We’ll call her ‘Flora’, then, shall we?”
“No, she should have her own name. Not ‘Flora’…..” He beamed. “’Freya’”
“Freya, eh?” His mum mused over the name, trying it out.
“ Freya Joanna Mulligan. It’s nice. I like it.”
Mum got all excited about the baby for a while. The house was full of catalogues and secondhand babygros and tester pots of pastel-coloured paint. It was all really girly, but Alfie didn’t mind.
Then one day, Mum said she wasn’t feeling too good. She went to the bathroom and when she came out, he could see she’d been crying. “Mummy needs a cuddle,” was all she would say.
Alfie ran to her and put his arms around her waist “My baby boy,” she murmured.
After that, things were weird at home for quite a while. Mum had always had a temper but, at some point, it kicked in to overdrive. On bad days,she’d tell him off, properly tell him off, for stupid stuff. Dropping things, holes in his socks, putting too much sugar on his Weetabix… Anything could set her off.
Then, when she’d made her throat hurt with shouting, she would melt in to a puddle of snotty, eyelinery tears. He tried stroking her cheek and whispering “I love you Mummy” in to the top of her head. But, she would just shove him away, hard, and cry even louder. “I’m sorry,” she mourned, over and over
He started hanging around with a gang of boys who lived on the estate across the way. It didn’t work out, he was younger and smaller than most of them. And he wasn’t in to football or armies or any of their stupid roughty-toughty boys’ games. So, they got bored of him.
Worst of all was trhe good days when Mum came to call him in for tea. He always ran to give her a cuddle and she would cuddle him back. Lifting him on to her skinny waist and rocking him. Just like a baby.
The estate gang, natch, did not like that like one little bit. “Mummy’s boy!” They sing-songed tauntingly.
Their eyes were wide and staring through the green playground railings. “Stupid, sissy Mummy’s boy!”
That must have been about the time he started growing his hair long. It started off as sort of an accident- Mum forgot to get it cut and he didn’t remind her. Then, he looked in the mirror one day and saw this boy with wispy brown shoulder-length hair staring back at him. He quite liked it
Mum said if he wanted his hair long he’d have to have it brushed- regularly. He knew she gave hers a hundred brush strokes a day, brushing it in long, unhurried downward pulls so it shimmered like flames. He’d seen her do it. It took ages
He didn’t think he could manage that. And, anyway, boys’ hair shouldn’t take as long as girls, should it? When he did his ‘hundred strokes’, he was quick and impatient. One, two, skip a few, ninety-nine, a hundred.
Mum was seeing a bloke she called ‘Uncle Trevor’ then. He was from Manchester. Built like a wrestler, with a ring through his nose, a beard like a shagpile carpet and a huge, vivid blue tattoo of a dragon about to take off stretching from his shoulders to his waist. He wore string vests and low-down jeans especially. To show it off.
Mum came to collect him from school most days. Sometimes on her own, and sometimes with this new uncle. On the days she forgot, he walked home by himself.
Sometimes, he saw some of the estate gang, walking holding on to their parents’ hands tight, and had to bite his lip to stop himself smirking.. He could cross roads and they couldn’t. Who was the baby now?
Alfie came home from school one day with a massive piece of sugar-paper in one hand and a parcel in the other. ‘Uncle Trevor’ wasn’t there.
He ran in to the kitchen, calling. “Mummy? Mummy!”
Mum was in bed, propped up on pillows like an ill person and reading a big thick paperback book. He clambered up, tugging at her silky pyjama sleeve. “Mummy, guess what?”
“I don’t know.” Mum looked at him over the book’s blue covers. “What?”
“We were doing poems at school and I got a gold star for mine. And do you know what else, Mummy?”
“What else, love?”
“Miss Nicholson said I did so good I could get a prize.”
Alfie had never won a prize at school before. It wasn’t that he wasn’t clever, he was. It was just that he was clever and trouble at the same time.
In his first two years at primary school, Alfie was forever getting told off. He went from one extreme to the other, the teachers said. Quiet and daydreamy or loud and fidgety.
They all thought he was hyperactive for a while. But, Mum said that was rubbish. He was just bored.
Miss Nicholson made Alfie feel special. She made all the other kids feel special, too, but maybe he was more open to it or something. When they had wet break, she’d sit the class round her and teach them poems by heart. Funny poems that were easy to remember.
Miss Nicholson said a lot of poems worked because of rhyme and rhythm. Alfie knew about rhyme, ‘cat’ rhymed with ‘mat’ and ‘mouse’ with ‘house’. Easy-peasy.
And rhythm had something to do with quicks and slows. Like in Music.
So, to make a poem, all he had to do was put the two things together. That wouldn’t be hard.
“So, what did you get?” His mum asked. “For your prize, I mean?”
“I haven’t opened the paper yet. I’ve got to wait.”
Mum snorted. “Who says?”
“Miss Nicholson says.”
“Well, she can just do the world a favour and get knotted, then.” Retorted Mum airily.
Alfie felt wronged and wasn’t sure why. “ Don’t say nasty things about Miss Nicholson, Mummy. She’s nice.”
“Sorry, precious.” She cuddled him one-armed.
The prize was Alfie’s first notebook. It was cool- crisp\white pages and hard blue covers so shiny that they looked like they’d been car-waxed. To go with it, there was a clear plastic packet of gel pens with a flap-lid. All zingy sweet-shop colours.
Alfie took a dark blue and purple gel pen from the packet and started to write a message on the notebook’s fly-leaf, as neat as he could manage. That was another thing teachers didn’t like, his messy handwriting.
Carefully, he wrote:
This book is for riting poems in. It belongs to
Alfie Sean Mulligan
Group 3 and 4
With Miss Nicholson
AND NOBODY ELSE IS ALOWED TO LOOK COS ITS MINE AND PRIVIT. SO THERE!
He put the lids back on the pens, put the pens back in the packet and put the packet in his top drawer, tucking it snugly underneath his socks. There.
“You’re not allowed to look at my book, Mummy. It’s got to be a secret.”
“You’ll have to start putting your own socks and pants away now, you know that, don’t you?”
That night, the people upstairs started rowing again. The American-name-girl and her family had left. Between them moving out and the students moving in, there was a young couple who seemed to row all the time. Especially at weekends, when they’d probably had a bit too much to drink. Shouting and swearing and slamming about the place. It was horrible.
Just before dawn, Alfie crept in to his mum’s room and turned on the bedside light When she pulled back the duvet and sat up, he saw that `she’d changed out of her silky pyjamas and was wearing a long strappy nightie the colour of avocados. She blinked.
“What’s wrong, Alfie? Bad dream?”
“They’re fighting upstairs again. Yelling and calling each other bad names.”
“Not again,” Mum moaned.
She gave him a tired smile. “I suppose that means you want to sleep in Mummy’s bed.”
Stupid, sissy Mummy’s boy, Alfie heard the estate gang chant inside his head. He bolted for the safety of Mum’s arms so quick she burst out laughing, cradling him gently.“Where’s the fire, eh?”
She chuckled in to the top of his head, kissing his fringe. “It’s OK, Alfie. It’s OK. Honest.”
All of a sudden, Alfie had an idea. Wriggling free of Mum’s arms, he jumped down off her bed on to the carpet. She groaned.
“Now what are you up to?”
Alfie giggled and kissed the arm she was reaching for the duvet with. “Back in a minute.”
In his own room again, Alfie prised the notebook out of his sock drawer and rummaged through his pen set until he found an angry red.
In scrawly capitals, he wrote:
Angry fiting words are bad
And make anyone lisning sad.
It wasn’t a proper poem, not like the one he wrote for school about spring and daffodils, and there wasn’t a rest of it. But, he’d got the cross feelings out. And that feel good.
He thought it was a bug, at first.
One day, he felt queasy just after breakfast and had to go to the bathroom pretty sharpish. He was in there until he’d emptied out most of the contents of his stomach. Afterwards, he was tired, but he felt better. So, he thought no more about it.
Except, it happened again the next day. And the next.
He didn’t know why he felt guilty about it; it wasn’t as if he was doing it on purpose. But, pretty soon, he was covering his tracks like a master criminal. Getting up to have breakfast early, brushing his teeth afterwards so Mum wouldn’t smell it on his breath. “It’s probably stress,” Anika said, when he told her.
The other weird thing about it was, because he got rid of most of his breakfast, at lunchtime he ate like his sandwiches were going out of style. He saw Miss Stewart look at him a bit thoughtfully once or twice, as she peeled her orange over at the teacher’s table. But, she kept her promise and didn’t say anything. Good old Miss.