Mum’s taking ages to discover I’m missing. I wish she’d figure it out soon, and then I can stop sitting here with my knackered old mobile on the plastic table in front of me. I’m freaking out every five minutes because of the way the sunlight catches the screen and makes me think that I’ve got a call. I rest my head against the grubby window, watch the countryside blur green into brown, and it makes my eyes go out of focus.
‘Twenty-five left in cash,’ Kyle says, placing the last couple of coins on the table. ‘But we’ve still got the credit card too, remember.’
Through the corner of my eye I see the concern etched on his face. He keeps glancing at Spike who’s sprawled across the two seats opposite ours and happily snoring away underneath our coats. When Kyle was waiting in line at ticket machine, I’d seen Spike’s eyelids drooping under the pressure of exhaustion. It was like watching one of those Vines where a meerkat or puppy or something was fighting sleep, head bobbing to the side and jerking up straight again. Except this wasn’t funny. We shouldn’t have taken Spike from the house. I’m thinking about what happens to kids who take younger kids without permission and if we’ll go to prison. That’s making me think of orange jumpsuits, and how people sleep with razor blades underneath their pillows for protection. I’m frowning at my own stupid thoughts when I hear Kyle say, ‘He’s only five and he’s knackered,’ to this old woman who’s staring over at our table and giving us disapproving looks because Spike’s got his feet poking out and into the aisle, he twitches them now and again like a dog does when its dreaming.
‘It’s against the law to have feet up on the seats,’ the old woman snaps.
‘Well, it’s a good thing his feet aren’t actually on the bloody seat then, isn’t it?’ Kyle shoots back.
We are in trouble. The biggest trouble either of us has ever been in, in our whole lives. I’m wondering what it would take for them to find us. I imagine the horrible noise Kyle’s Dad will make when he gets home from work and realises his youngest son is missing. I mentally watch him going through all the rooms in the house looking for him, checking under the beds and in the wardrobes just in case Spike’s playing a silly game. Hoping that’s what he’s doing. There’ll be police cars, and investigations. Our parents will be sat in a room together, and they’ll be accusing each other, playing the game of whose child is the most at fault, the most likely to come up with such a terrible idea. Mum will have to go to the police station – she’s terrified of the police – and answer questions, a piece of my clothing or my old stuffed rabbit from when I was a baby clutched to her chest like a safety blanket. I push my face closer to the glass, close my eyes. I’m trying to hide my face from the old woman so she can’t identify me if she’s questioned, and I’m starting to panic because I can’t remember if trains have CCTV, when a man comes up to the table and says ‘tickets please’ and I open my eyes to find his face glaring down at me and I give a little jump, Kyle shoots me a look and puts on this big fake smile.
‘I’ve got them,’ he says, passing the man a handful of orange and yellow tickets that the ticket machine spewed out.
The man clips three of them with something a bit like a hole-punch and says. ‘These are your return tickets. I don’t need the others,’ and hands them back to Kyle.
‘Thanks,’ he says, and stashes them in the front pocket of his bag. He checks it’s zipped up, the tickets cost way more than anticipated and we’re both terrified we’ll lose them.
‘Aren’t you going to tell that boy to take his feet off the seat?’ the old woman interjects, leaning across the aisle. She’s got silvery-grey hair styled into short soft girls and a loop of pearls swing from around her neck with each movement. I bet she was beautiful when she was younger.
The man looks at the old woman, then Spike in his batman costume, then Kyle, clacks his tongue against the roof of his mouth and says, ‘well, his feet aren’t actually touching the upholstery and I don’t think it’s necessary to wake the poor lad.’
‘That’s what I said,’ shouts Kyle, and it’s so loud that I put my finger to my lips and shush him because I don’t want Spike to wake up and ruin everything with his incessant jabbering. ‘Oh, fuck,’ Kyle whispers.
‘Absolutely disgraceful!’ the old woman snaps.
We get a bus to the flat. It takes us ages to figure out which number because there are so many stops and when we do find the right one the maps are all coloured routes snaking their way across the page, criss-crossing and making my brain hurt. I read out the strange sounding place name from a piece of paper I tore out of Mum’s address book and Kyle locates it on the map, picks the service number, and the whole time I’m thinking how glad I am that he came. I even forget about The Spike Problem for a while, that is until he starts whooshing around in his batman outfit, blue cape billowing in the wind, two eyes peering from underneath a stretch of black, and everyone starts staring at us.
We go to the back of the bus like we’re on a school trip. Kyle flops down and puts his feet on the seat in front of him, gives me a big grin. I sit next to him, don’t say anything. Spike comes straight up to me and climbs in my lap, loops an arm around my neck and shoves a thumb into his mouth like it’s a dummy. I can hear the gentle tuck-tuck sounds of the flesh against the roof of his mouth, and I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do with my arms. I let one rest around his middle so that he won’t fall off or break my neck from hanging on so tightly.
Kyle nudges me with his elbow. ‘You’re a natural,’ he says. ‘He usually hates other people. Especially girls,’ and he frowns, starts trying to remove a piece of crumbling chewing gum from the seat with the underside of his trainer.
I watch him for a bit; watch the way his eyes scrunch a bit at the corners because he’s thinking about something serious, and I want to ask him a question. I want to ask him where his mum is, and if she’s still alive, because I’m starting to get the feeling that she’s not in the picture. Spike never mentions a ‘mummy’ and it’s my impression that all little kids need reassuring that their mother is nearby.
But she might not be dead. She might not be around. And then I think what if Kyle and Spike are like me? Like Ryan. What if they are just other members of The Great Abandoned? And the more I think about it, the more likely it seems. I think about how annoyed he was when I complained about my mum, how he said ‘at least she cares,’ and I’d just assumed he was talking about his Dad. When a parent dies on Eastenders or Coronation Street or something like that – the mother in particular – the house is always like this super creepy shrine to the dead parent. Like a quiet, dusty tomb full of flowers and effigies. But Kyle’s house is empty, devoid of any sentimentality or memories. I’ve never seen a picture of a woman. I’ve never seen a picture of anyone in that show-home.
I guess tgetting reminded of a time when their mum was alive would be kind of horrible, but there’s nothing that I’ve seen, no sign that a woman was ever around, in the house or in the lives of the Evans’ brothers. The house is stark white, the furniture heavy and clunky. Boy’s stuff. Leather sofas like boulders on a too-shiny wooden floor, stainless steel fixings like you see on the tubs in IKEA. Proper posh stuff and none of that manky green gunge that clings to the taps in our bathroom, the stuff Ryan has to scrape off with a knife. The only signs of life in that house are Kyle’s sea of clothes and the odd flour explosion in the kitchen.
I miss the shabby two-seater and threadbare carpet in our front room, and I want to change the rules of our club to include Kyle’s crappy Mum because that has got to be the suckiest thing in the world because even though my mum is crazy, and apparently has a problem with telling the truth, she’s still my mum and she loves me. She’s never left us, no matter how hard things have got.
But I don’t, instead I just say, ‘I’ve never really been around little kids,’ and look down at Spike who has curled his head into the nape of my neck and shut his eyes. His eyelids flutter against his cheeks like wings and they tickle when the kiss my skin.
‘You’d never know it. Some people just have it, I guess.’
I want to smile at him, to let him know I know, but for some reason I can’t look at him and then it’s too late anyway because the moment has popped like a bubble in mid-air, and people start flooding the bus, milling in like ants; all making their way towards empty seats, world-weary and giving off that vibe that seems to cling to city commuters like a bad smell.
‘Can you move your feet,’ a red-headed woman barks. It isn’t a request.
‘Yeah. Of course. Sorry.’ Kyle immediately removes his feet and the red-head thumps down into the seat opposite him, pops in a pair of headphones and closes her eyes. ‘What is it with people and seats today?’ he whispers but he needn’t have bothered lowering his voice because the woman’s listening to some god-awful metal music like Ryan listens to at a really high volume. I reckon Kyle could probably lean over and shout in her face and she probably wouldn’t even stir.
‘Are we theeeeeeeeeeeeere yet?’
‘No,’ Kyle growls because I think he lost patience somewhere between us getting off the bus and having to chase Spike around the park for five minutes after he saw a fox dart across the road and decided that it would be fun to leg after it.
‘Yes,’ I shout. ‘Yes, I think this might actually be it.’
The buildings not much to look at because the orangey brickwork is old and chipped in places, and the big iron gates that separate the car park form the main road are in serious need of repair and rust spreads across the bars like a rash.
‘Is that it?’ Spike asks with his grubby fists wrapped around the railings, nose wrinkled in distaste. ‘Are we staying there?’
‘So the map says,’ Kyle sighs, clutching his mobile in one hand because we’d used the map app for directions.
‘No-one said it was The Ritz,’ I say in this kind of snarky way because their dad is rich and mine isn’t and I’m embarrassed for myself and uncharacteristically protective of my dad all at the same time and it makes me angry.
Irritation creeps across me like a shadow. Kyle doesn’t know what it’s like to have to wear his brother’s hand-me-downs, or go the same crappy sea-side town on holiday every year because their mum didn’t work and their dad drank too much to be of any real use. They had nannies and posh clothes that fit properly. He wasn’t made to have the free school dinners which usually consisted of some unidentified meat-based lump plopped on a plastic tray and a huge dollop of humiliation at the till when Mrs Patmore, the dinner lady, ticked your name off the register and asked you for your voucher. I began asking mum to make me sandwiches when I became friends with Beth because I could no longer stomach queuing up behind Annabelle Grey and watching the nits crawl around in her hair. ‘Urrrrgh,’ Beth would say when I went to find her after I’d eaten. ‘You’ve been with fucking Nitty Knickers,’ and then she’d pretend to spray with me Flea Spray before she’d let me sit with her, making this big song and dance about spraying the air, the seat, the door handle – and everyone would laugh.
‘Bloody hell!’ Kyle snaps because he’s tired and then I remember that I’m the one who has dragged him all the way here with no information about where we’d be staying – I hadn’t known either, but that’s beside the point – and he never moaned. Not once.
I turn my head so I can smile at him, let him know that I’m sorry and I’m just tired because I wanted to sleep on the train but once Spike woke up it was like dealing with the cartoon version of the Tasmanian Devil. But he’s got his head down, eyes locked on his mobile, so he doesn’t see my half-arsed attempt at an apology and I’m too ashamed to say it aloud. Sometimes I feel like two different people.
Spike sees me and pokes out his tongue. I poke mine out in reply. He giggles and says, ‘ooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,’ like you do when someone’s being all sarky and I laugh because it’s impossible not to.
Kyle looks up, catches the two of us messing about and says, ‘why do I always miss the fun stuff?’ He beams at me and then at Spike and it makes my stomach do cartwheels and I feel awful for thinking badly of him. Sometimes it’s like I have no control over my own thoughts.
He stashes his mobile in his jacket pocket. ‘We’re defo in the right place. The little blue dot says so.’
‘Oh, if the little blue dot says so,’ I joke.
‘Shut up and push the buzzer, smart arse,’ he quips. ‘Or did you bring us all this way just to hang around this dump?’
I go to shout at him but he smiles, raises an eyebrow in that way of his, and I realise he’s winding me up. ‘OK,’ I say and roll my eyes. I wish I got it when people made jokes. I wish I wasn’t the one left on my own all the time, being angry when everyone else is having a laugh.
‘Fuck,’ he says. ‘Wait.’
‘What now?’ I wail, grab my hair in my hand. Sometime this boy is infuriating. Doesn’t he get that I’m really nervous and I need to just push the buzzer to get it over with? I don’t understand why he’s stopping me.
Kyle’s looking at me when I turn round, my hand suspended in mid-air. I give him my best WTF face but he just frowns in this apologetic way and says: ‘I think I might need a fag before I meet your dad for the first time.’