Into the Fire
by Louisa Adjoa Parker
Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2016
The girl is in a squat with the man who said he loved her. It’s getting late, she says, my mum will be expecting me soon. Stay here, the man says, fuck her. Although she wants to curl up with him on the mattress on the floor with its dirty sheet and patchwork blanket, she thinks she should go home. I’ll see you soon, she says, hopefully. He kisses her as she leaves; the sensation of his full warm lips on hers makes her shiver.
She walks down the steps and clumps across the square in Doctor-Martened feet to the red phone box. Inside, it stinks of piss. One of the glass panes is broken, letting in cold air which swirls around her ankles. She counts out thirty pence and puts the coins into the slot before she dials. Hello, she says, I missed the last bus. I’ll get the next one soon. You’ve been staying out too much, her mother says. What about school? The girl is silent. Lately, it’s as though she’s a bird that has been kept caged for many years and is finally set free. Just come back, her mother shouts into the phone. Do as I fucking tell you. No, the girl says, not when you’re being like this. Fine, her mother says, if you don’t come back right now then don’t bother coming back at all. Fine, the girl says, I won’t. She slams the receiver down and kicks the door. Part of her hopes the other panes of glass will break, but they don’t.
She clumps back across the civic square, the tails of her man’s coat flapping behind her, then sits on a bench. She wants a cigarette. It is a Sunday evening, quiet. The shop fronts are all black, like unseeing eyes. The sky is black and starless. Everyone must be at home or in the pub. She wonders how it can be so easy to slip from one life into the next – a phone call, a few angry words. She’d always imagined leaving home like a scene from a film: a calm version of her mother waving her off with a single tear falling down her cheek. University, new friends, a new shiny life in a city. Not this. She realises she doesn’t have any of her things.
No-one she knows has walked past and she is bored and cold, so she heads back to the squat, which is up two flights of steps above the job centre. The men often joke about how handy it is for signing on. She bangs on the door. No-one answers for a while and panic blooms inside her. And then a voice shouts, hang on, and Dave opens the door. Your little bit of exotica erotica is here, he shouts to the man the girl thinks she is in love with. I suppose you better come in, girlie, he says to her, again.
Back already? The man asks with a sideways smile that makes her heart feel as though a hand has reached inside her ribs and squeezed it. Fallen out with yer mam? Kind of, the girl says shrugging. Can I stay here for a few days? The man laughs, staring at her with eyes like blue glass. It’s a free house, he says, it’s not like anyone’s paying rent. Make yourself at home girl.
She sits down next to him on his mattress. He shuffles up to make room. He has made a make-shift bedroom by draping paisley material over a bit of chipboard and propping it up with wooden boxes. There is no electricity; the room is lit with candles. It smells of hash and wood-smoke – the wood-burner is playing up again and chugging puffs of smoke back into the room. Four other men are sprawled on cushions and mattresses, smoking spliffs, sipping beer and laughing. The chip-paper walls are swirled with dark blue and green paint. The girl doesn’t feel quite safe – although she never does – but being here’s exciting. I’ve got a blim, she tells the man, have you got any baccy? Jase has got some, the man says, then shouts, Jase lend us a bit o’baccy for a spliff, mate? A packet of Cutter’s Choice flies across the room and lands on the bed between them. Cheers, the man shouts. He skins up and tokes deeply on the joint before handing it to her. She breathes the sweet smoke deep into her lungs.
I’ve left home, I think, she says after a while in a stoned voice. If no-one minds me staying here. No-one minds, the man says, stroking the inside of her thigh. Least of all me. I think this deserves a celebration! He produces a bottle of whisky with a flourish. Ta-dah! He says. Don’t tell the others. They drink whisky until the room spins and the girl can barely stand, then he pulls her into his arms. She breathes in the smoke and sweat and patchouli smell of him. Do you fancy taking these off, he says, tugging at her tights. She’s too drunk to worry if anyone will see or hear them.
In the morning she wakes to a soft grey light, and wonders what the time is. How will she know when she has to leave for sixth form? Then she hears the church bells chime eight times, so she gets up. In the bathroom she pisses in the filthy toilet, hoping no-one will come in as there’s no lock, and splashes cold water on her face. Her teeth are furred with plaque but she has no toothbrush. The whisky has given her a banging headache. She picks a dog-end out of an ashtray and opens the front door quietly. She lights the stub of cigarette and coughs into the cold air. She likes coughing in the morning; it wakes her up, makes her feel alive. In the square below people are setting up their stalls for market day. Soon it will be filled with colour: vintage clothes and tie-dyed dresses, gilded mirrors, old armchairs, pet food, loaves of wholemeal bread.
Back inside she stands over the man, who is still sleeping, for a moment, looking at his beard, his dark lashes, his long-at-the-back traveller’s hair that falls down his back like gold water. The sleeper in his ear. His lips are pink and slightly parted. As she bends down to whisper in his ear, she can smell the hot stink of whisky coming from his mouth and skin. I’ve got to go, she whispers. Have you got a toothbrush? He groans and shifts in his sleep. She kisses him on the forehead and goes to school.
Her days pass in a haze of smoke and booze. Although there often isn’t any food, someone always has a drink or spliff to share. The girl learns to steal from shops: blags fifty pence from school-friends and uses it to buy a bar of chocolate once she’s stuffed proper food up her sleeves or in the waistband of her trousers. The others call it ‘entrance fee’. She doesn’t like stealing, and feels sick after she’s done it, but it’s part of her life now. She does what she has to do to survive. Some days she goes to school, on others the man rolls a spliff and whispers, Stay with me today, in her ear, and she drifts back into stoned sleep, their brown and white limbs entangled on the mattress as though they are one person.
At nights they go down to the blue skips behind the supermarket, lift the lids and climb inside. She hates the smell of rotting food, but they only take what’s fresh. They often find quiches, and she eats chunks of them, not caring that the eggy filling sticks to her fingers.
One night Dave is angry and stalks around the flat waving a knife. You cunts, he says, over and over, to no-one in particular. He’s like a tiger in a zoo, pacing. His shoulders and arms are solid muscle from the rock-climbing he does. The girl curls into a ball on the bed, and hopes he doesn’t notice her. The man doesn’t seem bothered. Dave’s just on one, he says, he’ll be alright soon.
She doesn’t ring her mum for weeks. She can’t bring herself to think of her brother and sister, or the three of them shouting and unhappy inside that house. It’s not too hard to forget – the hash and drink help. When she finally rings she wishes she hadn’t. Come home, her mother says, and the girl can hear the desperation in her voice. I didn’t mean it. Yes you did, the girl says. It’s better if I’m not there. We don’t get on. I’ll come and get my things soon. As she hangs up the phone she can hear her mother sobbing. The girl can feel something sliding over her heart, like a metal grill on a shop window being pulled down at night.
Two weeks later they are on a train to Cornwall to meet some of his friends. She didn’t want to go, but likes to be with him all the time. Sometimes she thinks it’s pathetic, the way she follows him about. I know it was hard at home, her best friend said one day, but living there … isn’t it a bit like going out of the frying pan into the fire? At least it’s my fucking fire! The girl had screamed. And I get to choose whether I put logs or coal on it. She hardly sees her old friends; she doesn’t have sixth form anymore; the teachers told her she had to leave.
The girl doesn’t like it in Cornwall. They sit and drink in strange, dark pubs and she feels trapped; there is nowhere to go and she doesn’t know anyone here. Travellers trundle in and out with skinny dogs trailing behind them, all tweed and caps and muddy boots and words she doesn’t recognise. The man knows so many people.
On the train home he is talking to a woman who’s come with them. She’s older than the girl, pale-skinned, with dark hair in tiny braids, a tiny waist and curvy hips. Childbearing hips, the woman calls them, and laughs. It turns out she doesn’t have any children, although she did, but they have been taken away from her. Where’s she going to sleep, the girl asks the man. He shrugs and laughs. He’s drunk. The woman offers the girl swigs of neat Pimms, and before she knows it she is drunk too, her mouth tasting of strange oranges.
The three of them walk up the hill from the station, past the ruined castle. The girl glances at the turrets silhouetted against the sky, and remembers running around in there drunk on gin with her school friends, sitting on top of the castle with their feet dangling over the edge, hundreds of feet up in the air. The orange glow of their cigarettes in the darkness. It feels like a lifetime ago. She has new friends now, a new and adult life.
They’ve only been back at the squat for an hour, with the woman laughing and draping herself like a scarf all over the man, before the two of them start getting ready to leave. Don’t go, she says to the man, her hand on his arm. He shrugs it off and doesn’t look at her. The girl knows what they’re going to do. When they’re gone she lies on their bed and cries. The other men say things like, I bet he’s doing her really hard right now, and laugh loudly, and this makes her cry even more. Eventually she sits up and finishes a half-empty bottle of whisky the man had stashed down the side of their bed. She thinks of him inside her, of the woman’s hair and hips, the whiteness of her skin, and goes into the bathroom so she can cry in peace. She smashes the empty bottle in the bath and picks up a piece of glass. She saws at her wrists, but the skin won’t yield. She gives up and rests her head against the wall. The tiles are cold. How could you, she says. How could you?
The next day he hasn’t come home but she isn’t going to sit around and wait for him. She rings her mum and says she’s coming home for the night, then packs the few things she possesses now – a toothbrush (stolen from Boots) perfume from the man, (probably also stolen from Boots) a jumper, the tights and knickers her best friend gave her, an inhaler, a black eyeliner – in a carrier bag.
At the house she feels nervous as she knocks on the door. Everything looks as it was before. How can it be the same without her in it? Her mum answers the door and hugs her. I’ve been so worried, she says. I’m OK, the girl says, but doesn’t hug her back. She can’t sit around trying to talk, and her brother and sister are out, so she takes the dogs for a walk in the woods opposite their house. She’s missed the trees, the paths strewn with brown leaves, the silence.
Later that afternoon she runs a bath and places lit candles around it. It’s the first bath she’s had for weeks; she even washes her hair, which is in proper dreadlocks now. Coloured people have the best sort of hair for dreads, the man told her recently, you lot are lucky, really. For the first time she wondered if maybe having afro hair was cool, not ugly. She hadn’t bothered to point out she wasn’t part of a ‘lot’, that her and her siblings were the only brown-skinned people around. Her skin feels cleaner and softer than it’s ever felt before; her hair smells of flowers instead of smoke and dirt. She dries her hair and paints black eyeliner under her eyes, sprays her new perfume – heavy, sweet Poison – on her neck and chest.
Her room is exactly as she left it – curling tongs and make-up on her dressing table, the threadbare carpet, the mural of Snoopy lying on his kennel on her wall. She packs some things in a bag and puts it in a wardrobe. I’m going out tonight, she tells her mum, who is floating around the house with a worried expression on her face. Oh darling, her mum says, I thought you were staying the night? I’m meeting someone, the girl says, and stalks off. She’s going to get her own back.
In the morning she is at the house before anyone is up. She tiptoes up the stairs and goes into her room. She takes the bag from her wardrobe and goes back downstairs again. She closes the front door quietly behind her, and makes her way back to him.
Louisa Adjoa Parker
Into the Fire was Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2016, as chosen by Courttia Newland.