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Krystal Weedon had spent Monday and Tuesday nights on her friend Nikki’s bedroom floor after an especially bad fight with her mother. This had started when Krystal arrived home from hanging out with her mates at the precinct and found Terri talking to Obbo on the doorstep. Everyone in the Fields knew Obbo, with his bland puffy face and his gap-toothed grin, his bottle-bottom glasses and his filthy old leather jacket.
‘Jus’ keep ’em ’ere fer us, Ter, fer a coupla days? Few quid in it for yeh?’
‘Wha’s she keepin’?’ Krystal had demanded. Robbie scrambled out from between Terri’s legs to cling tightly to Krystal’s knees. Robbie did not like men coming to the house. He had good reason.
‘Nuthin’. Compu’ers.’
‘Don’,’ Krystal had said to Terri.
She did not want her mother to have spare cash. She would not have put it past Obbo to cut out the middle step and pay her for the favour with a bag of smack.
‘Don’ take ’em.’
But Terri had said yes. All Krystal’s life, her mother had said yes to everything and everyone: agreeing, accepting, forever acquiescing: yeah, all righ’, go on then, ’ere yeh go, no problem.
Krystal had gone to hang out at the swings under a darkening sky with her friends. She felt strained and irritable. She could not seem to grasp the fact of Mr Fairbrother’s death, but kept experiencing punches to the stomach that made her want to lash out at somebody. She was also unsettled and guilty about having stolen Tessa Wall’s watch. But why had the silly bitch put it there in front of Krystal and closed her eyes? What did she expect?
Being with the others did not help. Jemma kept needling her about Fats Wall; finally Krystal exploded and lunged at her; Nikki and Leanne had to hold Krystal back. So Krystal stormed home, to find that Obbo’s computers had arrived. Robbie was trying to climb the stacked boxes in the front room, while Terri sat there in dazed oblivion, her works lying out on the floor. As Krystal had feared, Obbo had paid Terri with a bag of heroin.
‘You stupid fuckin’ junkie bitch, they’ll kick yer ou’ the fuckin’ clinic again!’
But heroin took Krystal’s mother where she was beyond reach. Though she responded by calling Krystal a little bitch and a whore, it was with vacant detachment. Krystal slapped Terri across the face. Terri told her to fuck off and die.
‘You fuckin’ look after him fer a fuckin’ change then, you useless fuckin’ smackhead cow!’ Krystal screamed. Robbie ran howling up the hall after her, but she slammed the front door on him.
Krystal liked Nikki’s house better than any other. It was not as tidy as her Nana Cath’s, but it was friendlier, comfortingly loud and busy. Nikki had two brothers and a sister, so Krystal slept on a folded-up duvet between the sisters’ beds. The walls were covered with pictures cut out of magazines, arranged as a collage of desirable boys and beautiful girls. It had never occurred to Krystal to embellish her own bedroom walls.
But guilt was clawing at her insides; she kept remembering Robbie’s terrified face as she slammed the door on him, so on Wednesday morning she came home. In any case, Nikki’s family was not keen on her staying more than two nights in a row. Nikki had once told her, with characteristic forthrightness, that it was all right with her mum if it didn’t happen too often, but that Krystal was to stop using them as a hostel, and especially to stop turning up past midnight.
Terri seemed as glad as she ever was to see Krystal back. She talked about the new social worker’s visit, and Krystal wondered nervously what the stranger had thought of the house, which lately had sunk even further below its usual filthy tidemark. Krystal was especially worried that Kay had found Robbie at home when he ought to have been at nursery, because Terri’s commitment to keeping Robbie in pre-school, which he had begun while with his foster mother, had been a key condition of his negotiated return to the family home the previous year. She was also furious that the social worker had caught Robbie wearing a nappy, after all the work Krystal had put in to persuade him to use the toilet.
‘So whaddid she say?’ Krystal demanded of Terri.
‘Tole me she wuz gonna come back,’ said Terri.
Krystal had a bad feeling about this. Their usual social worker seemed content to let the Weedon family get along without much interference. Vague and haphazard, often getting their names wrong, and confusing their circumstances with those of other clients, she turned up every two weeks with no apparent aim except to check that Robbie was still alive.
The new menace worsened Krystal’s mood. When straight, Terri was cowed by her daughter’s anger and let Krystal boss her around. Making the most of her temporary authority, Krystal ordered Terri to put on some proper clothes, forced Robbie back into clean pants, reminded him he couldn’t piss in this kind, and marched him off to nursery. He bawled when she made to leave; at first she got ratty with him, but finally she crouched down and promised him that she would come back and pick him up at one, and he let her go.
Then Krystal truanted, even though Wednesday was the day she liked best at school, because she had both PE and guidance, and set to work to clean up the house a bit, sloshing pine-scented disinfectant over the kitchen, scraping all the old food and cigarette butts into bin liners. She hid the biscuit tin holding Terri’s works, and heaved the remaining computers (three had already been collected) into the hall cupboard.
All the time she was chiselling food off the plates, Krystal’s thoughts kept returning to the rowing team. She would have had training the following night, if Mr Fairbrother had still been alive. He usually gave her a lift both ways in the people-carrier, because she had no other means of getting over to the canal in Yarvil. His twin daughters, Niamh and Siobhan, and Sukhvinder Jawanda came in the car too. Krystal had no regular contact with these three girls during school hours, but since becoming a team, they had always said ‘all right?’ when they passed each other in the corridors. Krystal had expected them to look down their noses at her, but they were OK once you got to know them. They laughed at her jokes. They had adopted some of her favourite phrases. She was, in some sense, the crew’s leader.
Nobody in Krystal’s family had ever owned a car. If she concentrated, she could smell the interior of the people-carrier, even over the stink of Terri’s kitchen. She loved its warm, plasticky scent. She would never be in that car again. There had been trips on a hired mini-bus too, with Mr Fairbrother driving the whole team, and sometimes they had stayed overnight when they competed against far-flung schools. The team had sung Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ in the back of the bus: it had become their lucky ritual, their theme tune, with Krystal doing Jay-Z’s rap, solo, at the start. Mr Fairbrother had nearly pissed himself the first time he heard her do it:
Uh huh uh huh, Rihanna …
Good girl gone bad –
Take three –
Action.
No clouds in my storms …
Let it rain, I hydroplane into fame
Comin’ down with the Dow Jones …
Krystal had never understood the words.
Cubby Wall had sent round a letter to them all, saying that the team would not be meeting until they could find a new coach, but they would never find a new coach, so that was a pile of shit; they all knew that.
It had been Mr Fairbrother’s team, his pet project. Krystal had taken a load of abuse from Nikki and the others for joining. Their sneering had hidden incredulity and, later on, admiration, because the team had won medals (Krystal kept hers in a box she had stolen from Nikki’s house. Krystal was much given to sneaking things into her pockets that belonged to people she liked. This box was plastic and decorated with roses: a child’s jewellery box, really. Tessa’s watch was curled up inside it now).
The best time of all had been when they’d beaten those snotty little bitches from St Anne’s; that day had been the very best of Krystal’s life. The headmistress had called the team up in front of the whole school at the next assembly (Krystal had been a bit mortified: Nikki and Leanne had been laughing at her) but then everyone had applauded them … it had meant something, that Winterdown had hammered St Anne’s.
But it was all finished, all over, the trips in the car and the rowing and the talking to the local newspaper. She had liked the idea of being in the newspaper again. Mr Fairbrother had said he was going to be there with her when it happened. Just the two of them.
‘What will they wanna talk to me abou’, like?’
‘Your life. They’re interested in your life.’
Like a celebrity. Krystal had no money for magazines, but she saw them in Nikki’s house and at the doctor’s, if she took Robbie. This would have been even better than being in the paper with the team. She had burst with excitement at the prospect, but somehow she had managed to keep her mouth shut and had not even boasted about it to Nikki or Leanne. She had wanted to surprise them. It was as well she had not said anything. She would never be in the paper again.
There was a hollowness in Krystal’s stomach. She tried not to think any more about Mr Fairbrother as she moved around the house, cleaning inexpertly but doggedly, while her mother sat in the kitchen, smoking and staring out of the back window.
Shortly before midday, a woman pulled up outside the house in an old blue Vauxhall. Krystal caught sight of her from Robbie’s bedroom window. The visitor had very short dark hair and was wearing black trousers, a beaded, ethnic sort of necklace, and carrying a large tote bag over her shoulder that seemed to be full of files.
Krystal ran downstairs.
‘I think it’s ’er,’ she called to Terri, who was in the kitchen. ‘The social.’
The woman knocked and Krystal opened the door.
‘Hello, I’m Kay; I’m covering for Mattie? You must be Krystal.’
‘Yeah,’ said Krystal, not bothering to return Kay’s smile. She showed her into the sitting room and saw her take in its new, ramshackle tidiness: the emptied ashtray, and most of the stuff that had been lying around was crammed onto the broken shelves. The carpet was still filthy, because the Hoover did not work, and the towel and the zinc ointment were lying on the floor, with one of Robbie’s matchbox cars perched on top of the plastic tub. Krystal had tried to distract Robbie with the car while she scraped his bottom clean.
‘Robbie’s at nursery,’ Krystal told Kay. ‘I’ve took ’im. I’ve put ’im back in pants. She keeps puttin’ ’im back in pull-ups. I’ve told ’er not to. I put cream on his bum. It’ll be all right, it’s on’y nappy rash.’
Kay smiled at her again. Krystal peered around the doorway and shouted, ‘Mum!’
Terri joined them from the kitchen. She was wearing a dirty old sweatshirt and jeans, and looked better for being more covered up.
‘Hello, Terri,’ said Kay.
‘All righ’?’ said Terri, taking a deep drag from her cigarette.
‘Siddown,’ Krystal instructed her mother, who obeyed, curling up in the same chair as before. ‘D’yer wanna cup of tea or summat?’ Krystal asked Kay.
‘That’d be great,’ said Kay, sitting down and opening her folder. ‘Thanks.’
Krystal hurried out of the room. She was listening carefully, trying to make out what Kay was saying to her mother.
‘You probably weren’t expecting to see me again this soon, Terri,’ she heard Kay say (she had a strange accent: it sounded like a London one, like the posh new bitch at school half the boys had stiffies for), ‘but I was quite concerned about Robbie yesterday. He’s back at nursery today, Krystal says?’
‘Yeah,’ said Terri. ‘She took ’im. She come back this morning.’
‘She’s come back? Where has she been?’
‘I jus’ bin at a – jus’ slep’ over at a friend’s,’ said Krystal, hurrying back to the sitting room to speak for herself.
‘Yeah, bu’ she come back this morning,’ said Terri.
Krystal went back to the kettle. It made such a racket as it came to the boil that she could not make out any of what her mother and the social worker were saying to each other. She sloshed milk into the mugs with the teabags, trying to be as quick as possible, then carried the three red-hot mugs through to the sitting room in time to hear Kay say, ‘… spoke to Mrs Harper at the nursery yesterday—’
‘Tha’ bitch,’ said Terri.
‘There y’are,’ Krystal told Kay, setting the teas on the floor and turning one of the mugs so that its handle faced her.
‘Thanks very much,’ Kay said. ‘Terri, Mrs Harper told me that Robbie has been absent a lot over the last three months. He hasn’t had a full week for a while, has he?’
‘Wha’?’ said Terri. ‘No, ’e ain’. Yeah, ’e ’as. ’E only jus’ mist yesterday. An’ when ’e had his sore throat.’
‘When was that?’
‘Wha’? Monf ’go … monf’na ’alf … ’bout.’
Krystal sat down on the arm of her mother’s chair. She glared down at Kay from her position of height, energetically chewing gum, her arms folded like her mother’s. Kay had a thick open folder on her lap. Krystal hated folders. All the stuff they wrote about you, and kept, and used against you afterwards.
‘I takes Robbie to the nurs’ry,’ she said. ‘On my way to school.’
‘Well, according to Mrs Harper, Robbie’s attendance has fallen off quite a bit,’ said Kay, looking down the notes she had made of her conversation with the nursery manager. ‘The thing is, Terri, you did commit to keeping Robbie in pre-school when he was returned to you last year.’
‘I ain’ fuckin’—’ Terri began.
‘No, shurrup, righ’?’ Krystal said loudly to her mother. She addressed Kay. ‘He were ill, righ’, his tonsils were all up, I got ’im antibiotics off the doctor.’
‘And when was that?’
‘Tha’ was ’bout free weeks – anyway, righ’—’
‘When I was here yesterday,’ Kay said, addressing Robbie’s mother again (Krystal was chewing vigorously, her arms making a double barrier around her ribs), ‘you seemed to be finding it very difficult to respond to Robbie’s needs, Terri.’
Krystal glanced down at her mother. Her spreading thigh was twice as thick as Terri’s.
‘I di’n’ – I never …’ Terri changed her mind. ‘’E’s fine.’
A suspicion darkened Krystal’s mind like the shadow of some circling vulture.
‘Terri, you’d used when I arrived yesterday, hadn’t you?’
‘No, I fuckin’ hadn’! Tha’s a fuckin’ – you’re fuckin’ – I ain’ used, all righ’?’
A weight was pressing on Krystal’s lungs and her ears were ringing. Obbo must have given her mother, not a single bag, but a bundle. The social worker had seen her blasted. Terri would test positive at Bellchapel next time, and they would chuck her out again …
( … and without methadone, they would return again to that nightmare place where Terri became feral, when she would again start opening her broken-toothed mouth for strangers’ dicks, so she could feed her veins. And Robbie would be taken away again, and this time he might not come back. In a little red plastic heart hanging from the key-ring in Krystal’s pocket was a picture of Robbie, aged one. Krystal’s real heart had started pounding the way it did when she rowed full stretch, pulling, pulling through the water, her muscles singing, watching the other crew slide backwards … )
‘You fuckin’,’ she shouted, but nobody heard her, because Terri was still bawling at Kay, who sat with her mug held in her hands, looking unmoved.
‘I ain’ fuckin’ used, you ain’ go’ no proof—’
‘You fuckin’ stupid,’ said Krystal, louder.
‘I ain’ fuckin’ used, tha’s a fuckin’ lie,’ screamed Terri; an animal snared in a net, thrashing around, tangling herself tighter. ‘I never fuckin’ did, righ’, I never—’
‘They’ll kick you out the fuckin’ clinic again, you stupid fuckin’ bitch!’
‘Don’ you dare fuckin’ talk ter me like tha’!’
‘All right,’ said Kay loudly over the din, putting her mug back on the floor and standing up, scared at what she had unleashed; then she shouted ‘Terri!’ in real alarm, as Terri hoisted herself up in the chair to half crouch on its other arm, facing her daughter; like two gargoyles they were almost nose to nose, screaming.
‘Krystal!’ cried Kay, as Krystal raised her fist.
Krystal flung herself violently off the chair, away from her mother. She was surprised to feel warm liquid flowing down her cheeks, and thought confusedly of blood, but it was tears, only tears, clear and shining on her fingertips when she wiped them away.
‘All right,’ said Kay, unnerved. ‘Let’s calm down, please.’
‘You fuckin’ calm down,’ Krystal said. Shaking, she wiped her face with her forearm, then marched back over to her mother’s chair. Terri flinched, but Krystal merely snatched up the cigarette packet, slid out the last cigarette and a lighter, and lit up. Puffing on the cigarette, she walked away from her mother to the window and turned her back, trying to press away more tears before they fell.
‘OK,’ said Kay, still standing, ‘if we can talk about this calmly—’
‘Oh, fuck off,’ said Terri dully.
‘This is about Robbie,’ Kay said. She was still on her feet, scared to relax. ‘That’s what I’m here for. To make sure that Robbie is all right.’
‘So ’e missed fuckin’ nursery,’ said Krystal, from the window. ‘Tha’s norra fuckin’ crime.’
‘… norra fuckin’ crime,’ agreed Terri, in a dim echo.
‘This isn’t only about nursery,’ said Kay. ‘Robbie was uncomfortable and sore when I saw him yesterday. He’s much too old to be wearing a nappy.’
‘I took ’im outta the fuckin’ nappy, ’e’s in pants now, I toldja!’ said Krystal furiously.
‘I’m sorry, Terri,’ said Kay, ‘but you weren’t in any fit condition to have sole charge of a small child.’
‘I never—’
‘You can keep telling me you haven’t used,’ Kay said; and Krystal heard something real and human in Kay’s voice for the first time: exasperation, irritation. ‘But you’re going to be tested at the clinic. We both know you’re going to test positive. They’re saying it’s your last chance, that they’ll throw you out again.’
Terri wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
‘Look, I can see neither of you wants to lose Robbie—’
‘Don’ fuckin’ take him away, then!’ shouted Krystal.
‘It’s not as simple as that,’ said Kay. She sat down again and lifted the heavy folder back onto her lap from the floor where it had fallen. ‘When Robbie came back to you last year, Terri, you were off the heroin. You made a big commitment to staying clean and going through the programme, and you agreed to certain other things, like keeping Robbie in nursery—’
‘Yeh, an’ I took ’im—’
‘—for a bit,’ said Kay. ‘For a bit you did, but, Terri, a token effort isn’t enough. After what I found when I called here yesterday, and after talking to your key drug worker and to Mrs Harper, I’m afraid I think we need to have another look at how things are working.’
‘What’s that mean?’ said Krystal. ‘Another fuckin’ case review, is it? Why’djer need one, though? Why’djer need one? He’s all righ’, I’m lookin’ after – fuckin’ shurrup!’ she screamed at Terri, who was trying to shout along from her chair. ‘She ain’ – I’m lookin’ after ’im, all righ’?’ she bellowed at Kay, pink in the face, her heavily kohled eyes brimming with tears of anger, jabbing a finger at her own chest.
Krystal had visited Robbie regularly at his foster parents during the month he had been away from them. He had clung to her, wanted her to stay for tea, cried when she left. It had been like having half your guts cut out of you and held hostage. Krystal had wanted Robbie to go to Nana Cath’s, the way she had gone all those times in her childhood, whenever Terri had fallen apart. But Nana Cath was old and frail now, and she had no time for Robbie.
‘I understand that you love your brother and that you’re doing your best for him, Krystal,’ Kay said, ‘but you’re not Robbie’s legal—’
‘Why ain’ I? I’m his fuckin’ sister, ain’ I?’
‘All right,’ said Kay firmly. ‘Terri, I think we need to face facts here. Bellchapel will definitely throw you off the programme if you turn up, claim you haven’t used and then test positive. Your drug worker made that perfectly clear to me on the phone.’
Shrunken in the armchair, a strange hybrid of old lady and child with her missing teeth, Terri’s gaze was vacant and inconsolable.
‘I think the only way you can possibly avoid being thrown out,’ Kay went on, ‘is to admit, up front, that you’ve used, take responsibility for the lapse and show your commitment to turning over a new leaf.’
Terri simply stared. Lying was the only way Terri knew to meet her many accusers. Yeah, all righ’, go on, then, give it ’ere, and then, No, I never, no I ain’, I never fuckin’ did …
‘Was there any particular reason you used heroin this week, when you’re already on a big dose of methadone?’ Kay asked.
‘Yeah,’ said Krystal. ‘Yeah, because Obbo turned up, an’ she never fuckin’ says no to ’im!’
‘Shurrup,’ said Terri, but without heat. She seemed to be trying to take in what Kay had said to her: this bizarre, dangerous advice about telling the truth.
‘Obbo,’ repeated Kay. ‘Who’s Obbo?’
‘Fuckin’ tosser,’ said Krystal.
‘Your dealer?’ asked Kay.
‘Shurrup,’ Terri advised Krystal again.
‘Why didn’ yeh jus’ tell ’im fuckin’ no?’ Krystal shouted at her mother.
‘All right,’ said Kay, again. ‘Terri, I’m going to call your drug worker back. I’m going to try and persuade her that I think there would be a benefit to the family from your staying on the programme.’
‘Will yeh?’ asked Krystal, astonished. She had been thinking of Kay as a huge bitch, a bigger bitch even than that foster mother, with her spotless kitchen and the way she had of speaking kindly to Krystal, which made Krystal feel like a piece of shit.
‘Yes,’ said Kay, ‘I will. But, Terri, as far as we’re concerned, I mean the Child Protection team, this is serious. We are going to have to monitor Robbie’s home situation closely. We need to see a change, Terri.’
‘All righ’, yeah,’ said Terri; agreeing as she agreed to everything, to everyone.
But Krystal said, ‘You will, yeah. She will. I’ll help ’er. She will.’
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