On a Planet Other Than Ours

We grew up three streets apart, attended the same high school, and worked in the local Tesco. This was in Haslingden. It was the Easter long weekend. I walked to Jack’s house. Several cars were parked in front. Each of his three older siblings had a car, his parents too, and now Jack had his own, purchased only a few months earlier. It was there—a black, second-hand Toyota. Just seeing it filled me up. It was him. He was here.

I tried his phone again but there was no answer. I didn’t want to, but I rang the doorbell.

His sister, Angie, answered the door. “It’s open,” she said. “It’s always open.”

Something about her terrified me. She had been in twelfth grade when I first started high school. Now I was in eleventh grade and she had long left school, but it made no difference. She still outlined her eyes in kohl, just as she had done then.

“What’s your name again?” she said.

“Carly.”

“Oh, yeah. Carly Myer.” Her face broke into a grin. “You here for lover-boy, are you?”

“Jack.”

She laughed. “Yeah, he’s a real fucking catch. Follow me.”

We walked down the hallway. There were voices at the end of the house where we were headed. I came to stand in the doorway to the back room and it seemed they were all there—the Taylor family—every single one of them. They were on sofas and the floor, watching a football game on television. The room was warm and smelt of crisps, pizza and beer.

Angie rejoined them and I lingered in the doorway.

Jack was sitting on one sofa, watching the television avidly, sitting between other people. Someone laughed, a burst of laughter, and I knew it was at me standing there alone in the doorway as if I was on stage.

Every person looked at me, except Jack. His mum waved her fingertips at me. “Okay, love?” and turned her attention back to the television before I could say anything. Jack’s brother elbowed him in the ribs and someone else yelled, “Jesus. Jack.”

Jack looked up at me abruptly and clambered off the sofa. There were wolf whistles and more laughter. He grabbed my arm and drew me away from the doorway and further into the hall.

“Carly. I didn’t know you were here,” he said.

I put my hands to my cheeks. They were burning. “That was so embarrassing,” I whispered. “We were meeting up this afternoon, weren’t we?”

“Yeah. Sorry. I forgot the time,” he said. “I got caught up in the game.”

Jack drew me to him in his thin arms. I pressed my face into his black t-shirt and smelt the last cigarette he smoked and him. I shut my eyes. He kissed my forehead. Then he put his hands on my face, in just the way he knew I liked, and dropped his mouth to mine. I forgot where we were. It didn’t matter.

“Shit. Find a room, kids,” someone said.

We fell apart. It was his brother, standing in the kitchen doorway with a can of Coke and a bowl of crisps.

“Fuck off, Dan,” Jack said.

Dan smirked, appraising me openly. He held the bowl towards me. “Crisp? Or you might need a drink. Jack’s a leech.”

“Fuck. Off,” Jack said, and grabbed my hand. “Let’s go.”

We heard more laughter as we left the house and I figured Dan had reported what he saw to the family.

“Okay. That was so embarrassing too,” I said.

“I know,” Jack said, and his teeth were gritted.

He dropped my hand and walked around to the driver’s side of the car. When I got in beside him he was already winding down his window and lighting a cigarette. I wound down my window too and took a cigarette from his pack.

“Since when?” he said.

I leaned over to him for a light, with the cigarette between my teeth. “Since fucking now.”

He lit my cigarette. “I hate them,” he said.

Jack sat back in his seat, turned on the ignition and flung the car into reverse. He did this very neat tossing of ash out his window, throwing his hand back in a fast, instinctive movement. It showed the pale inside of his wrist. It was unthinking, beautiful.

“Your mum seemed nice,” I said.

“She’s not. She’s a bitch.”

It was actually what I had been thinking but could not say. She looked hard.

“You didn’t want me to introduce you, did you?” Jack said, glancing over at me.

“God, no,” I said. But it might have been nice, made it official.

“They’re probably used to seeing you with Diane,” I said, referring to his previous girlfriend, Diane Shorebridge, who he went out with for an astonishing 18 months.

“They don’t give a shit,” he said.

I had been put in my place. They did not care. I drew harder on my cigarette, hating the raspy feeling down my throat.

We slowed behind a bus that was braking. Jack did not drive us into the back of the bus. He flicked the ash away again and he was so grown up. He was driving us to the river. It was why I had come over. It was probably why he got his licence on his seventeenth birthday, the first day that the law allowed.

For two months we had been going out. I was on the pill. We had started to not use condoms. Everything, all of it, was so new. I wanted to tell him that I loved him, but I was scared of what he would say in response, if anything. I wore stockings under my skirt, proper stockings with suspenders, because I knew he liked that, more than liked it. I hadn’t renewed my nail polish for two weeks because he said he loved them pink and chipped.

We stopped at a petrol station and he filled the car. After paying, he walked back—he had bought us a Coke each. His eyes were so blue, iridescent, and he smiled at me through the windscreen. “Only you” by The Flying Pickets, came on the radio—such an old, daggy song. I couldn’t turn it off.

*

Jack came to the store on a Saturday afternoon, during my shift. We hugged near the bay of discounted goods, still in plain view of customers. I don’t know what they made of it. Jack, tall and wearing jeans and a hoodie, leaned over me. I was almost hidden behind him in my uniform of black pants and white button-down shirt, with a nametag, and my long, purple, painted nails on his back. He worked at the store too, but he did dawn fill from 5AM. We both could have been in the shit.

He leaned back and said my name, quietly. Then he smiled, hard and wistful, as if he was memorising me. Fear twigged low in my gut, fear that he was leaving. That his car was packed and he was going somewhere far away and he wasn’t coming back. A person could vanish, I knew that.

“You’re picking me up later, right?” I said.

He held my ponytail and ran his hand along the length of it. “Are you telling me to leave you alone?”

“No. Of course not,” I said.

He kissed my cheek. “See you at five,” he said, and walked away, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans. His head bent, showing the nape of his neck.

A customer, standing at the end of the aisle and holding a bottle of pasta sauce, stared at me. My pulse raced and for a mad second I wanted to pull a face at her, but then she smiled at me, very slowly, and it warmed me through.

Later that afternoon, Jack’s sister, Angie, came to my checkout.

“Hi, Angie. How are you?” I said, more confident now, behind the counter.

She raised her eyebrows at me. That was all. The grey conveyor belt brought her items closer to me: crisps, frozen crumbed chicken pieces, orange juice, milk, bread, Clearasil face wash.

Angie leaned against the counter, watching me, while I scanned the items. “Like your nails,” she said. “Where’d you get them done?”

“Nowhere. I did them myself.”

She nodded. “Shame. I’d go to the same place.”

I took a breath. “I could do yours, Angie.”

Her face went flat. “Nah.” She paid and collected her bags. “Tell Jack when you see him to not bother coming back home.”

I stared at her. “Why?”

“He’ll know,” she said, and left.

*

Five minutes to five—I usually ran to the lockers and got changed from my uniform into jeans or a skirt. I didn’t today. I collected my things from the locker and went straight to the car park. I wore a grey hoodie over my shirt, the one I wore when I arrived at seven o’clock this morning. My handbag over my shoulder. I looked like a career checkout chick.

Jack’s phone kept going to voicemail. He pulled into the car park at quarter past five. It was the first time in two months he’d been late. I was ready to pass out. He didn’t leave the car and pushed open the passenger door for me.

I got in. “Is everything alright?” I said.

His gaze swept over my face and I waited for his mouth to open. It didn’t. He wasn’t going to tell me.

“Angie came in,” I said.

He blinked slowly, very slowly.

“What happened?” I said.

“I’m going to stay at Ryan’s for a while.”

“Why?”

“Family shit. I yelled at my Mum. She drank the bottle of Johnnie Walker I got for my birthday. She took it from my bedroom. Drank it.”

I didn’t know what to say to that and stayed silent.

“Mum acts as if nothing is happening,” he said. “Like we should all pretend that she isn’t a filthy alcoholic.”

Jack drove us out of the car park, quick and rough. He lit a cigarette. He drank his takeaway coffee.

I put my hand on his thigh. It was rigid. “Do you think you’ll go back home?” I said.

He glanced at me. “Mum doesn’t want me to live there. That’s okay. I don’t want to live there either.”

“But you’re still at school.”

Jack shrugged. “I’ll work it out.”

He flicked on the radio and changed it a few times until he got what he wanted—Rage against the Machine, “Killing In The Name”. He turned it up loud.

Jack drove past the turnoff to the lake which we normally took.

“Where are you taking us?” I said.

“Ryan’s place.” He looked over at me and smiled. “Ryan’s not there.”

“Is your stuff there already?”

He nodded, excited. “It’ll be better. I promise,” he said, probably comparing it to the backseat of his car.

“I don’t mind where we go,” I said, and I meant it. I wanted to lay down with him, that was all.

*

Ryan’s flat was above a shop on Manchester Road in Haslingden. A couple of sash windows in the main room faced the street. They were covered with pink nylon curtains that were so filmy and transparent I could see the flats opposite, above another row of shops. The light through the windows was soft and pink.

Standing beside me, Jack clinked his keys in his hand.

The place was quite bare: an old, beige sofa and television; a table jammed against a wall with two mismatching chairs, and above the table a poster on the wall—Amy Winehouse, Back to Black.

“It’s lovely,” I said.

Jack took my hand and led me to a bedroom. It was tiny, half a room, but it fit a single bed, wardrobe, and a desk and chair. A full bin bag at the end of the bed presumably held his clothes. There was an open box on the desk. That was all. A football balanced at the top, ready to fall out.

“I thought you’d be crashing on Ryan’s sofa,” I said. “This looks permanent.”

Jack shrugged. “It’s been coming for a while. His flatmate moved out last week.”

“I didn’t know you were planning on moving out of home.”

“I’ve talked about it,” he said.

He hadn’t. Not with me. I looked over at him and he was a stranger. He might have felt it, the distance, because he smiled at me close-lipped, as if he understood. I missed him then. I wanted to see his smile with his beautiful teeth very slightly caved into his mouth. He took my bag from my shoulder and put it on the desk.

“How will you pay for it?” I said.

“You charging now?”

I hit him in the chest. “The room? How will you pay the rent?”

“I’ll do more shifts at the store.”

Jack drew down the zipper on my jacket, gradually, so that I heard it pass each tooth. He undid the buttons of my shirt. His hands touched my bare waist.

I flinched. “Your hands are cold,” I said.

He took them back. “Sorry. Sorry.” He blew on his hands and rubbed them together hard and fast, his gaze on me. His hands went back to my waist and moved up to my ribs and down to my waist, slow, again and again, mesmerising. “Better?” he said.

I leaned into him. “Much.”

He kissed me. He opened his mouth and I dived in, thinking I could die, here and now. I was ready.

The light came through one window with the same pink sheer curtains. I saw us as if we were caught on film. The light warm, diffused, until the sun dropped away and it turned cold and grey. We were in bed, me beneath him, him beneath me. We were bones. He pulled the elastic from my ponytail so that my hair fell in a curtain around my face and around his too. We breathed into each other, one animal.

*

Jack dropped me back home by eleven. We kept it short because last week my older brother, Travis, had come out and rapped on the car window. “Mum wants you inside,” Travis said, before returning to the house. Dad would never have done that. I was humiliated. Jack just laughed.

Tonight Mum was in the living room watching television. I stopped in the doorway.

“How was your night?” Mum said in that cold way she spoke to me now after I had been with Jack.

“It was good. Fine,” I said.

“I heard Jack’s moved out. I don’t want you going to his place.”

“Who told you?”

“Megan Thompson. She lives in the house opposite them. Saw the commotion apparently.”

“What? Peering through the curtains at them?”

Mum gave me a long look. “I never liked that Taylor family.”

“Jack’s the black sheep. I’ve told you.”

“Maybe,” she said, and sighed deeply. “You’ll find out when you grow up. The apple never falls far from the tree.”

*

Jack’s brother, Dan, was arrested a couple of miles out of town for drink-driving. It made the second page of the local paper because he punched the constable in the head, causing him concussion. Now, Dan was remanded on police assault charges.

Mum left the paper on the kitchen table, open to that page.

*

Jack picked me up from the store after my Saturday shift. He was exhausted, his eyes small and red.

“Did you just wake up?” I said.

“Yeah. I was so fucking tired,” he said. “When are you going to get your licence?”

I looked at him. Dad died the previous year in a car accident on the A56. I was in no rush to learn to drive.

“You don’t have to pick me up,” I said.

He squeezed my leg. “Sorry. I’m just shattered.”

“Join the club.”

Jack laughed. “You put in a ten-hour shift on a Saturday and you reckon you’re tired?”

“You know I work more than that.”

“Sure,” he said, shaking his head.

I almost told him to drop me off at home, but I couldn’t. Not for anything.

Back in his flat, we went straight to his bed as if we were led there. We fucked for a long while and then I didn’t sleep, but he did a little. It was after nine, before we got out of bed to eat down on Manchester Road, either pizza from Babolli or kebabs from Zorba. These were my favourite nights.

Pulling on my clothes, I saw on his desk a postcard of a mine—an enormous canyon in which the earth was cut deeply into terraces, the soil red and the sky a bright, sharp blue. It was captioned: “Jimblebar Iron Ore Mine, the Pilbara, Western Australia”. It seemed other-worldly, as if the photo had been taken on a planet other than ours.

I didn’t pick up the postcard. “What’s that?” I said, pointing, and my voice was different.

“That’s a postcard from Jimblebar Mine.”

I stared at him. “Why do you have it?”

“My mate Sean sent it to me. He’s there. I’ve been thinking about it,” he said.

“What? Working there? In a mine?”

“I could earn 140 thousand dollars a year. That’s more than 70 thousand pounds.”

“Australia?”

“Australia.”

My breath stopped. I left the room.

Jack followed me and went to the kitchen. I sat on the edge of the sofa, still in the dark. The orange street lights came through the curtains, shining on the walls. I heard Jack fill the kettle. We were here now, both of us, right here. A bird cried out in the night. I thought of Jack, soon, living in small, temporary accommodation, provided by the mine to workers. His precious hands, his arms, his legs, his face, all of him, covered in red dust.

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