“We can’t do it,” I tell her, but Jenna just laughs. She pours honey onto her pancakes, fat globs that catch the sunshine blaring through the kitchen windows, then licks the spoon, slow. Looking me dead in the eye so that I know she’s serious.
“We can do whatever we want,” she says. “And come on, someone needs to teach those fuckers that what they did is wrong.”
I touch my cheekbone. The scar on my eyebrow where I had to have stitches. “We’ll get caught,” I say. But my voice tells her I’m tempted, and she smirks.
“Come on, Alex,” she says, slicing fleshy fingers of batter glued together with syrup and jam. “We said we were gonna bust out of this dump before we turned eighteen. This is our chance. We get our revenge, then we ghost. The cops’ll come looking, sure. But we’ll be gone by then.”
I play for time, cut my pancake into tiny squares. They’re sugar-studded, sweet and sharp; lemon juice puddling at the edges of the plate. I play the options out, the things that could go wrong. We’re both too young for prison proper. That’s something. And the way she wants to do it, that’s another. Jenna’s been my friend since primary school, with her out-of-control hair and nails so bitten-down that she leaves tiny blots of blood on the edges of her homework; the taste of metal in the air every time we talk. She’s beaten up bullies for me since we were six years old, and right now she’s got her Joan of Arc face on; a fierce crusader, lit up from the inside, sure that she’s right.
I know all about the saints. Mum’s lapsed these days; still goes on Sundays but claims she can’t believe, not like she used to. She still keeps the crucifixes up on the walls; gaudy gold, furred with dust, next to framed photos of me, every age but now. On my blue bike at Christmas, stabilisers trailing twin paths through the snow. School portraits, smiling with my mouth closed to hide the gap in my teeth; the sick, beefy smell of school dinners and a teacher fussing over my undone top button, the pen stains on my shirt.
“We’ll need money,” I tell Jenna, once I’ve chewed and swallowed, and she grins and punches the air.
“This is gonna be such an adventure,” she says, crossing to the cooker to make another batch. She whisks milk and eggs, starts it sizzling, and then we start pooling our savings, a new undercurrent of urgency compared to the times we’ve done it before; calculating what rent costs in each potential city, combing the classifieds for futures we could claim. This time we mean it. Jenna looks up the train times, her laptop keyboard a lacework of red smudges. I thunder up to my bedroom, twenty-six steps, and back, dump out the coins and notes I’ve been collecting, then sit down; start to count.
At quarter to one, we rinse the plates and pan, hide all the evidence of our plans. Jenna turns the radio down, and I spread science coursework across the kitchen table. At five to one, we hear Mum’s key in the door, back from church, and she looks in to check we’re behaving before wheezing upstairs. She smiles at Jenna first. Mum likes Jenna, always has. She thinks she’s a good influence, from a good family. She doesn’t know about the psycho stepdad, or the way they have to keep the curtains closed in case the bailiffs come.
With Mum upstairs, we have to keep quiet. Since Dad left, she pops too many pills, and I can never tell whether it’ll be the tranquilisers or the ones that have her cleaning the house all night, starting at every tiny noise I make and saying that the sound of my breathing sets her nerves on edge.
At the door, Jenna and I whisper our goodbyes. She chews a nail then kisses me on the cheek. A smear of blood smudges my skin, nothing like that night. In low murmurs she reminds me what I have to do next, then she’s down the path – fifteen steps – and away without looking back. Her keys are through her fingers, glinting at her side.
In her combats, with her hood up, she looks more like a boy than me. “I like it,” she said, when I teased her about it. “Means I’m less likely to get messed with, innit?” I ruffled her curls, laughed, and the conversation rolled on. She wouldn’t say that now. She’s been wearing less make-up, only painting her face fierce when we go to town on Friday nights. Her clothes are even more androgynous than they were before. She’s scared, and I understand why. I am too.
In my bedroom, I start to pack, setting aside things to sell, and the ones I want to take. I peel photos down from beside my bed; not all of them, just my favourites. Leaving enough so that Mum won’t notice the ones that are gone. Me and Jenna on a night out, wearing our warpaint, mugging for the camera; striking a pose. Jenna’s cousin, Suzi, asleep on the last bus back from town, her raver clothes acid-bright against grimy seats.
“Come on, be good. Don’t you think your old mum puts up with enough?” That’s what she asks, most Fridays, when she hears the beats start to shudder through the floor. She leans on the door jamb in her jeans, like a model, like she knows she was a heartbreaker once. Long ago. By then I’ll be in my shirtsleeves, jumper and tie swallowed by the dirty laundry in the corner, sitting on my single bed, texting Jen and Suz. Making plans for later; assessing the weather, discussing if we need to wear coats.
“Come on, Mum,” I tease, dragging a comb through my hair. “Can’t let you off too easy, can I?” We’ll bicker, but not really. She’s too tired to do anything but go through the motions; I can see the drag of fatigue in the slope of her shoulders, the way her body slops into her armchair when she gets in from work.
Every week, she forbids me from going out, but I’m sure she knows I sneak out once she’s asleep. Waiting to hear her slippers stop shuffling to the bathroom and back, then her slow wet wheeze, in and out.
“Stay in, tonight, please,” she’ll say. “We can make popcorn, watch a film together. The way we used to.”
We haven’t done that in years.
“But Mum,” I’ll say, putting on the whine I know makes her wince. “I can’t let Jenna go to town on her own.”
“Then get her over here instead. It’s freezing out. And it’s too dangerous, going out at night.”
She tells me that every Friday, about going out at night. Too dangerous, she’ll say, and the thing is, she’s right.
Monday morning, Jenna meets me on the corner by college and we walk in together from there. The others have been leaving us alone lately, but still, we’re better as a team. I wonder whether any of them know, about what happened. Some of them must. There’s enough people from school ended up here, redoing their GCSEs, same as me. Not like Jenna, clever cow. Passed all hers first time, she’s doing criminology now.
“Won’t you be gutted to jack it all in, though? You’ve worked well hard so far.”
“I looked it up already,” she says. Course she has. “You can transfer your modules, start somewhere else. Extenuating circumstances, yeah?”
“You’re not changing your mind?”
I think of the throb in my ribs, the scar tissue forming where no-one can see.
“No way,” I say, and she winds an arm round my waist.
“We could just go,” she says. “If you wanted to. We don’t have to do the other thing.”
We’re almost at college now. But behind us, our estate is crawling with graffiti, dirt, crime. Lowlifes and no-lifes and the drizzle-fat sky pressing down.
“Yeah, we do.”
And then, we get down to business. Jen’s already spoken to Suz. She’s gonna sort us out. Suzi can sort anything. She’s got these Bambi eyes that everyone loves, and a market stall on Saturdays, so she’s tight with all the dodgy dealers. Thick as thieves. Jenna’s stockpiling clothes, make-up, CDs. I pass on what I can, add in a stash of prescription sedatives from Mum’s medicine cabinet; a blisterpack smash of colours that almost look like sweets.
In English, it’s all poetry by ridiculous dead men. My desk’s already been carved up into insults and arrow-pierced hearts. I spend the entire lesson inking them in, until ten minutes from the end, when we’re ordered to discuss in pairs. I’m with Kelli Grayson, who sits with two sidekicks on my right-hand side. But she doesn’t huff at being matched with me, not like I thought she would. Instead she gives me this hundred-watt smile, spins in her chair until we’re knee to knee.
“C’mon, then,” she says. “What’s the score with this?”
I repeat back what the teacher said, about poetry containing worlds; weather and mothers and revenge and grief.
“Bit deep for me, that,” she says, with a snort.
“At least you listen. You never look like you are, but you do.” I shrug. What’s she been watching me for?
“You know,” she says, leaning close, close enough that I can smell her watermelon lipgloss, the candy-sweet fake Britney perfume Suz sells down the market, “I heard a rumour about you.”
Except it doesn’t. Everyone else is talking, messing, taking the piss; knowing our teacher only sets us discussions to fill time before the bell. Moonhead Mark’s throwing scrunched-up balls of paper at one of Kelli’s mates, and it’s loud and there’s laughter, and no-one’s noticing us.
I tough it out. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Someone told me you were gay.”
I look at her under my lashes, wait for what’s coming next.
“Is it true?”
I smile, tight, shake my head.
“Is it your little friend? That one you’re always with?”
“Me and Jenna are just mates,” I say, relieved to be back to the truth.
“That’s what I thought,” Kelli says, looking smug, and then the bell goes and she’s back with her posse, shoving books in satchels, adjusting their ponytails and mascara in matching compact mirrors.
I keep my face blank until I find Jenna, in the computer labs. Crazy-patterned carpet and the walls all rainbowed with posters about hackers and not looking at porn.
There’s only a couple of people in there, gaming geeks with their big headphones on. But I keep my voice low all the same.
“I think Kelli Grayson was just flirting with me.”
She falls about laughing until I have to cuff her round the head. “Oi. It’s not that hilarious, you know.”
She howls even more, then wipes her eyes and says sorry. “Course not. You’re gorgeous.” Then she chucks me under the chin. Cheeky bitch.
“You’d be much more believable if you kept a straight face.”
That sets her off again. “I wish I’d seen it,” she says, in the end. “Lunch?”
By the end of the week, we’ve got a plan, all set for Saturday night. But we’re going out Friday, like usual. One last time. I’ve not been since the stitches came out, and Jenna says it’s symbolic. “We gotta say goodbye,” she insists, before we part ways on the corner. “Before we blast outta here forever.”
“As long as there’s no trouble.”
If there is, we’ll be the ones causing it,” she says, but I can tell she knows what I mean.
Mum comes in while I’m getting ready; spiking gel through my hair and lacing up my biker boots; forty quid from Suz’s mate on the market, should have been two ton.
“You’re off out tonight, then?”
“Only to Jen’s. Not town.” No point worrying her over nothing. The biggest dangers are closest to home but Mum doesn’t know that; she just sees the news, the stabbings, the shootings, the flowers taped to lampposts the day after, tear-crumpled mothers snotty in the paper. There’ll be a media circus like that here, if we go through with it tomorrow. But me and Jenna, we’ll be long by then.
“You’re a good ’un,” Mum says, with a watery smile. “Don’t stay out too late.”
“I won’t,” I promise. “Night.”
She shuffles back to her room, and I lean out onto the landing, with the plush blue carpet and the porcelain birds on the wall, piles of washing and the smell of soap. She’s got her programme turned up so loud she doesn’t hear me when I tell her that I love her.
I’ll leave her a note tomorrow. Tell her everything. Not the exact details, just enough. I know she’ll be better off without me. Especially once the police come calling, when she finds out what we’ve done.
Once I’m sure she’s asleep, I finish getting ready; check from all angles, make sure the scars can’t be seen. Then slip downstairs. Count to ten, disarm the alarm. Then slide back the bolts and into the dark.
The club is a syrup-sweet cocktail of noise and people and lights. Spotlight-strobed faces carousel in and out. At the bar Jenna shouts our order, looks back at me over her shoulder and grins.
“Are you gonna miss it?” she asks, gesturing to the dancefloor, the drag performers onstage, the topless bartender juggling gold bottles of tequila and the scrum around us, pressing close.
I feel the bassline thudding through my feet, the warmth of bodies in the hard pulsing dark. Then I shake my head and tell her: “Not a chance.”
“C’mon,” I say, holding my hands up. “You know I love it here. But we’re onto bigger and better things now, aren’t we?”
“That or a prison cell,” she says, then hands me my drink.
Inferno’s is the first club I ever came to. The night out that bonded me and Jenna proper; on the last train to town on a summer night when everything was fizzy with heat. The rails hissed as the sun went down and we clutched our flyers and fake ID and told each other we looked eighteen. It’s one thousand sixty-seven steps from the station to mine. Two thousand and thirty-three from where the night bus stops, on the opposite side of the estate. That was our only option, that night, and every night we’ve gone out since. Taxis cost more than we can afford, so we wait for the number thirty-nine, with all the psychos hurling insults and then punches between fistfuls of chips. After that, we walk, cocooned in each other’s coats. We made a game of it, before; pretended we were invincible because we always made it home in one piece.
Tonight, the bus journey goes smooth. There’s a cold snap coming, you can taste it in the air. By the time we’re almost home, the snow’s flurrying in; a soft hiss of static whiting out the world. Jenna spins in the road like a Disney princess.
“They didn’t predict this, right?” she says, still twirling, arms outflung.
I shake my head.
“It’s a sign,” she says. “That we have to do it. This sticks until this time tomorrow, there’ll be no-one about. No witnesses.”
“Fingers crossed,” I tell her, then put my arm round her to walk her back to hers. One thousand, six hundred and ninety-four steps.
From Jenna’s to mine, there’s no-one, and I take Jenna’s lead, tell myself it’s a sign. I go the long way, not past the pub, but before I turn I see the windows, still alive with light. That’s where they go, the thugs we went to school with; slopping beer down their fronts and grinding their teeth. Their illegal lock-ins last the night, then the next day they start over again.
I can’t remember when the jeers started, the way the lads would heckle as I walked past. Calling me queer, and ugly, and weird. As long as it was only words, I told myself it didn’t hurt. And for a long time, that’s all it was. A few pushes and shoves, sometimes. One time a beer bottle that whizzed past my head, fireworking on the concrete into a thousand green glass sparks. Nothing more than that.
Until last month, when six yobs from school followed me onto the park.
I heard them behind me, sped up my pace. Black tarmac, glittering with broken glass. The baby swings knotted, thrown over the bars. I pushed harder, muscles burning. Not letting on that I’ve heard, not looking back. But there were too many of them, too fast.
It took two of them to hold me down while the others went to work. I blacked out before the worst, and they were gone when I came to. I stumbled the rest of the way to Jenna’s; two hundred and ninety-seven steps. During that distance, I spat out three teeth. She mopped up the worst of the blood and changed my clothes. Suzi took us to A&E.
The following night, the cold is like an electric shock. My lungs star into snowglobes and my toes turn into stone. I wait at the end of the path until Suz’s car purrs out of the dark. Jen and I sit in the back like kids on the way to the beach. Suzi said come incognito but I went for gangster’s moll glamour instead; eyeliner, mascara, false lashes that feather my cheeks.
“Alex, you know that isn’t what I meant,” Suz says, once we’re cruising, but she sounds more affectionate than annoyed.
“Shurrup,” Jenna tells her. “It’s brilliant. No way will anybody recognise us now.”
We go quiet when the car pulls up.
“Ready?” Jenna asks, passing me a paper bag. The streetlamps froth electric orange, bouncing off the snow. My fingers are still numb when she puts the lighter in my hand. I can hear the music, throbbing through the pub walls, and underneath that, voices. The sky is dizzy with stars as we douse circles of petrol, then empty packets of firelighters from the market at the windows and doors. It takes time for the flames to lick through the frost and catch. We watch from the car’s rear window as the Suzi hits the gas. Her tyres scream on the ice. We’re halfway to the motorway before the smoke and sirens start.
“Come on,” Jenna says, as we pull up at the station. She’s got the tickets, she’s ready. So am I. Suzi kisses us both goodbye. She’s sorted us a place to stay with a mate of hers, says she’ll come visit when she can. She waits until we’ve hauled our suitcases in before she drives away.
The London train’s waiting to go; sleek red metal under spotlights that bleach our skin bright. I put my sunglasses on.
“This your boyfriend then, love?” a guard asks when Jen flashes our two tickets.
She looks at me, bursts out laughing. “Not even close.”
Then she takes my hand and pulls me forward, from the concourse to the train.
“Sixty-six steps,” Jenna says, as we flop into our seats.
“I didn’t count,” I tell her, grinning, and it’s the truth.
Jen punches my arm, looking proud as anything. Smacks a kiss on my cheek as the train starts to move.