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“Bunch of hooligans. Will you look at that? Broken glass and everything. This play park is for kiddies. Here, you hold onto Henry while I clear it up. Damn teenagers got no right – forgive my language – to be hanging out here, let alone leaving rubbish all over. Wouldn’t surprise me if there was syringes.”
“Careful, Gramps,” Daisy said, gripping Henry’s reins against his struggles to pull away to the baby swings. The twins were on the seesaw already, equally balanced, moving smoothly, shouting nonsense.
There weren’t any syringes, just cig packets, bottles and cans, which Gramps scooped between his gloves and carried to the bin, which was “Only this far away! Easy enough to clean up after themselves if they cared at all.” He sniffed at his anorak. “Smell like a brewery. I’ll have your Granny thinking I’ve taken you to the pub. If I ever get my hands on those little vandals…”
Granny knew as well as anyone can know anything that Gramps was at the play park with his grandchildren; he’d never be anywhere else at this time on a Sunday. After church, he always got them out from under the feet of the mams and Tony so they could make lunch, while Uncle Yunxu was back at the newsagent’s, paying the paper boys and girls and pulling the grill down over the window.
They had been Daisy’s Granny and Gramps for half her life now. She could barely remember the cold bedsit days when it was just her and Mam, before Tony came, bringing sunlight, a house and his relatives. Two years ago, Henry had made their family complete, though Daisy hadn’t realised it was lacking before. Daisy pulled him in close for a cuddle, but he twisted away. She let him go.
“They got nothing better to do? National Service, that’s what we need.”
Gramps eased Henry’s excitedly kicking legs into the holes of the swing.
On her way to the monkey bars, Daisy spotted a bottle lying under the seesaw, not broken yet, but it would be if Jaiden or Bella fell onto it. She tutted like her grandfather and picked it up. Rum. Not quite empty. She dumped it into the bin. It left a burnt sugar smell on her hands. Gramps nodded approval over Henry’s chuckling head.
Sometimes kids in her class asked why her dad and her brother were black when she wasn’t. At Primary school she’d never had a good answer, but now she’d just say “He’s my stepdad”, which was enough for all but the most racist or nosey.
She watched her upper arms twisting just in front of her face. She tried to judge whether they were getting any firmer. She wouldn’t want muscles like a boy, but she wished they wouldn’t wobble. She pulled herself up onto the top of the bars, and from there climbed to the top of the climbing frame. She could look down on the park from here, onto the top of Gramps’ bald head, the black squares under the equipment and the yellow grass between, the roundabout. She could only tell it was moving because the blob of flailing colour which was Henry was spinning like a teddy in a washing machine.
The twins were on the swings now, coming in and out of view, unsynchronised, dissonant. Auntie Louise had been pregnant with them when Daisy had first met her. Uncle Yunxu had frowned so often in those days that Daisy had thought he disapproved of Mam. Since Bella and Jaiden’s birth, though, he smiled at everyone all the time.
He’d promised Daisy a paper round next year. Mam was worried about traffic, but Daisy dreamed of cycling chilled morning streets, earning money of her own, getting on the school bus knowing she’d already done useful work, so she didn’t have to care so much about Science and History, which didn’t really matter and never made much sense.
She looked beyond the park, over the fences into people’s gardens she’d never have seen from anywhere else, saw a fallen, faded Little Tikes car, a neat washing line of towels, and an empty bird table, then she twisted to look up the road to Uncle Yunxu’s shop. The metal was down, which meant lunch must be nearly ready.
A gang of kids was walking down the road. Teenagers. Her muscles clenched fear. No, wait, she recognised that coat, a hair colour, then a face. They were kids in her year.
She hid her face in her lilac hood while she climbed down.
“Look where you’re going!” Gramps called.
She couldn’t shout across the park to reply to him now.
“You going on the swing?” he asked, loud as he could, with Cherry and her mates getting closer all the time.
Daisy reached him, pulled her hood even further forward, said, “Don’t feel like it. Should we head back?”
“Soon, girl, soon,” Gramps said. “Henry, choose your one last thing.”
“The grill’s down on Uncle Yunxu’s shop. He’ll get there before us.”
“Doesn’t matter. The slide, Henry? No?” He shouted to the twins, “One last thing!”
Cherry and Jack – and was that Lewis? – were walking past the tennis courts now, close enough to hear him.
“Daisy, sit on the other side of the seesaw with Henry, balance me out.”
“I’m not a baby.”
Gramps got distracted by a pile of damp cigarette butts sloping up to the central post of the seesaw. “Disgusting.”
Her classmates were dressed in sharp jeans or tracksuits. Silver sparkled at the girls’ ears. Their hair was done and, though they were too far away for Daisy to check, probably their makeup too. She kept her gaze low, on her Sunday leggings, which were too short, exposing dark stubble. She shaved in the bath on Sunday nights, because of Games on Mondays. Granny had bought her the hoody for Christmas. She loved the butterflies down the sleeves, but Daisy didn’t want Cherry and Madison to see them. She prayed they hadn’t spotted her sat on the climbing frame like a little kid. Especially not Lewis.
She waited at the gate, restless from foot to foot, listening for voices behind her, kept her head down and her mouth closed until they were inside Granny and Gramps’ house, which felt and smelled and sounded like every Sunday. Uncle Yunxu was pouring himself a beer; Tony was carving chicken. She shut herself in the downstairs loo, rubbing green soap foam over and over the backs of her hands, breathing deep, letting the familiar sounds carry her.
She set knives and forks either side of the faded river scenes on the placemats.
“Broken glass! No respect, no consideration. They must climb in over the fence at night. The words they write on the equipment! If one of my grandchildren gets hurt, I’m going to—”
“You’ll do nowt, Dad! Don’t be daft.”
“Henry could have cut himself, Tony.”
“I know, I know. It’s dreadful, but you can’t get involved. Look, I’ll phone the council in the morning, get them to tidy it.”
“No point. It’ll only fill up with rubbish again.”
Daisy gave Gramps a hug when he emerged from the savoury steam of the kitchen to sit at the head of the table, remembering him running his boot round the posts of the swing to check for glass shards.
She cut herself shaving that night. The blood dripped into the bath like paint into a glass of water. It stung when she rinsed it off, so she lifted her foot onto the side of the bath, where chill air bit into her leg, sending the pain bone-deep as blood flowed in lines down her calf to splash into the water.
Next morning, there was a long scab down her shin. Gingerly rolling her tights over her ankles, she spotted sprouts of dark hair which she’d missed. As she walked to the bus stop, the nylon snagged on the edges of the cut.
At lunch, Amy and Karina didn’t get chips, so she didn’t either. Amy lifted her sandwich to her mouth in both hands for a full central bite. Karina peeled off her top slice and selected a lettuce leaf, so Daisy did the same.
“You going straight home after school?” Amy asked, replacing her sandwich in its package.
Karina nodded. Daisy lifted and lowered one shoulder, waited.
“Thought I might hang out at the parade for a bit,” Amy said.
The parade was short row of small shops, set back from the road, with oversized plant pots full of crisp packets ranged along it. Last year, in Year Seven, when they’d been new to the school, they would cross the road to avoid the big kids smoking and lounging there, the boys spitting huge, foamy gobbets into the ridges of the concrete.
“Cool,” Daisy said. “I might go with.”
Half an hour later, she sat hunched over herself in the changing room, pulling nylon threads from the sticky scab trying to weave them into itself. Her hockey sock exposed the top of it. At least her legs were smooth between there and the hem of her skort.
She ended up walking out to the pitch with the stragglers, an unmixed group of the less capable and the too cool, keeping out of Cherry’s way without getting mixed up with those with spectacles and wheezes, who were too neat or too grimy, too fat or too skinny. On the field, she merged back into the middling pack where she belonged.
When Daisy and Amy walked out of school at the end of the day, Karina walked with them. She asked whether they’d heard the new Ariana track. Nobody mentioned that she’d said she was going to go straight home.
On the parade, they slipped behind the group of teenagers shoving and shouting, to lean against the plate window of the mini supermarket which displayed the backs of shelf units and a piece of card saying, No more than 3 schoolchildren at a time. They watched in silence, acclimatising. After half an hour they went for their buses.
When they stood in the same place the next afternoon, Jack from their form asked if they had a light.
“Quite right, too,” Lewis said. “Filthy habit.”
“I’m getting an e-cig,” said one of the girls from the year above. “Much healthier. Don’t start, girls. I wish I never.”
It rained steadily on Wednesday and they got loads of homework in Geography. Daisy decided to give the parade a miss. She couldn’t see the point in hanging out there anyway. But then, on their way out of Maths, Cherry was with her, and they joined Karina and Jack near the office, somehow streamed out of the school gates together, and merged into the rest of the group. It didn’t feel possible to break away.
Lewis perched on the windowsill of the bookies’ beside her as they pressed back under its scant awning.
When Daisy changed out of her church clothes that Sunday, she put on her best jeans and brushed her hair.
“I’ve washed your lilac hoody,” Mam said when she saw Daisy wearing her Urban Outfitters cropped jacket. “You’ll freeze in that.”
“It’s not cold out,” Daisy said.
“Granny likes to see you in the butterflies.”
Daisy sighed and rolled her eyes as though she thought her mam wasn’t serious.
Gramps brought a plastic carrier bag to the park, “To clean up after those delinquents. Bloody teenagers. Excuse my language.”
“None taken,” Daisy said.
“Oh, no, girl! You know I don’t mean you. I’m talking about the layabout trouble-making teenagers.”
Daisy lifted Henry into the only empty toddler swing. In the one on their left, swamped by the thick bars, was a baby held in place by a woman in a rainbow scarf. Daisy barely remembered Henry being so small.
The other swing was being pushed by a dad with a well-groomed beard and tight, faded jeans. Daisy stopped herself from looking at him by matching him push for push to get their swings in time with each other.
When Gramps took over from her, the handsome dad said to him, “You’ve been doing a good job there. I’ll bring a bag next time, sort out some of the litter.”
“It’s not safe for the kiddies.” Gramps pulled Henry back and up and back and up, so he squealed with anticipation.
“It’s not like there’s no bins.”
“Don’t care, do they? No respect.”
The park was busy today, probably because it was warmer than last week. Bella was under the slide, playing houses with a little girl Daisy didn’t know. They’d pulled out some of the grass which grew round the ladder and were laying it out on a big leaf.
Daisy wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t want Cherry turning up again and catching her on a climbing frame. She didn’t want to mess up her new jacket. She couldn’t see over the tennis courts from the ground, so she didn’t know whether anyone was coming down the road past Uncle Yunxu’s shop. She edged her bum onto the low, green railings.
Jaiden shot past, yelling, “Bet I’m fastest on the chains!”
It took a moment to process what he was saying, and a split second more to decide, before she was sprinting after him to the wobbly chrome bridge. He’d already crossed two wooden steps. She lurched and swung, laughing, to overtake him, cold links in her fists, pushing her foot against his foot, rocking the chains, reaching forward, shaking it to make him hold tight with both hands, turned, stretched, stepped, repeated her movements slower, to let him catch up without realising, then made it onto the end beam only just ahead of him.
“Next time!” Jaiden said. “I’ll beat you next time!”
That night she shaved carefully round the long scab. Greasy pork sloshed her belly against the lapping bathwater. She wished she’d refused the crackling. Arm lifted, she stroked off the soft hairs in her pit, rinsed the razor then did the other side, more awkwardly, with her right hand.
When the bubbles cleared, she saw red trails of blood in the water. She’d been so careful after last week, so aware, that she couldn’t see how she could have cut herself without even noticing. She lifted her feet onto the end of the bath. No cuts on her legs. The red trail floated between them. It was a relief to realise that she’d just come on her period. Then it was an annoyance.
Amy wasn’t in school the next day. She’d texted Karina that she was sick. Daisy felt bloated and nauseous, too, but knew better than to mention it because it was just her time of the month. They walked out to the hockey pitch with Cherry and Madison.
At the parade, Lewis sat next to Daisy on a giant plant pot. He talked about Cardi B. When she got home, Daisy listened to Invasion of Privacy on Spotify. She wished she had a paid account so she could hear it in the right order. There was no point asking Mam, though. She’d have to wait until she got the paper round next year.
On Thursday, Jack got laughed at by the woman in the mini supermarket when he tried to buy beer there.
“Never mind,” Madison said, “I’ve got some vodka we can take to the park.”
“What time’s your bus?” Amy asked Karina.
“Doesn’t matter,” Karina hissed.
It wasn’t the same park Daisy went to with Gramps on a Sunday. It was the one behind the leisure centre, with the rocking things shaped like ducklings. There were only two women there, leaning against double strollers, chatting to each other while kids climbed the equipment.
Cherry sat on one of the swings and pushed off. The rest of them ambled towards her, round the children. Daisy leaned against a post, thighs braced because it wasn’t really wide enough. Jack sat on another swing with Madison on his lap. Karina hitched her skirt up more than she needed to sit up on the seesaw. Two boys from the year above drifted towards her, so Amy went over there too.
Daisy pretended not to watch the childminders gather up their charges. Lewis squatted down near to where she was leaning. Neither of them said anything.
Madison shrieked. She was sitting on the ground in front of the swing. Jack was laughing at her.
“Guess I know who’s not getting any vodka, then,” Madison said.
Daisy checked that the child minders hadn’t heard, but they were on the far side of the park by then and didn’t look back.
“It was a joke!” Jack said.
“It was hilarious!” said one of the boys from the year above. “Never mind her vodka, I’ve got cider.”
Amy and Karina started laughing. Cherry lit up a cigarette.
Lewis stood up and walked backwards, quietly asking “Roundabout?”
“So,” he said, easing himself down onto the low bench seat of the roundabout, “I’ve been wondering something.”
Her heart did a little bounce thing. She hadn’t realised it could actually do that. She sat beside him, thigh to thigh in the child-sized space.
“It’s alright if you don’t want to—” he was interrupted by a loud clanking noise.
They both turned to watch Jack and another lad chuck one of the swings up towards the bar above it.
“It’s alright if you don’t want to answer,” Lewis said
They watched the seat of the swing heave through the air again, hit the bar again.
“But how come your dad’s black and you’re not?”
He must have seen her face fall as clear as she’d felt it go, because Lewis quickly said, “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. He’s my stepdad. That’s all.”
They watched the other three boys chasing after the seat of the swing, Madison and Karina taking swigs from a bottle.
“What’s he like?” Lewis asked.
Daisy shrugged. “Alright.”
“That’s cool. My mam’s bloke is really boring.”
All at once, as the seat hit the bar again, Daisy realised what the boys were trying to do. She’d seen swings with their chains wrapped over and over the bar, seats raised so high the kids couldn’t reach them. She’d helped Gramps unwind them by throwing them back over, time and again, until they swung low and straight again.
“You ever see your real dad?” Lewis asked.
Daisy shook her head. “You?”
“Couple of times a year. Never know what to say.”
Karina brought a couple of cans over. She was sipping gingerly from one, offered them the other. “You mind sharing?”
“Cool,” Daisy said. She looked at the cider in her hand. Wasn’t sure. Handed it to Lewis.
The three of them watched Madison, squeezed into a duckling rocker, bending the springs back as far as they’d go until her back was on the ground, and pushing it back up again. It moved slowly, wobbling slightly.
There was a ting and then a slithering, rattling noise. The swing seat had made it over the top of the bar. Jack yelped.
Lewis’s smile was unsure. He looked to Daisy.
“Idiots,” said Karina.
Lewis kept watching Daisy.
“Yeah, idiots,” she said.
“Yeah, what a waste of time,” he said quickly. He opened the can and took a long swig.
Daisy watched his Adam’s apple pulsing as he swallowed. His neck was covered in fine gingery hairs. When he stopped drinking, she noticed that Karina had wandered off again.
It was dark now, proper dark beyond the reach of the white car park lights. She should text her mam. The houses and the street lights looked a long way away. The leisure centre didn’t have any windows on this side. She wondered whether it was still open.
Lewis handed her the can. She took a tiny sip. It tasted mostly of cold. She tipped her head back further, so it would look like she was drinking more than she was.
“New Marvel movie out next week,” Lewis said. “You watch them?”
“Sometimes. Look, I’ve just got to answer this text.”
She held her phone up so he couldn’t see that she hadn’t received anything. Unsure what to tell Mam, she sent with friends, will be a bit late. They couldn’t stay much longer, could they? They all had school tomorrow. She had to finish those equations.
“You want to see the new one when it’s out?”
Daisy wasn’t sure what Lewis was asking. She waited for him to say there was a group planning to go to the cinema, so she could tag along. He didn’t say anything. He drank some more.
Jack and Madison were inside the tunnel on the climbing frame. She could see them kissing through the gaps between the slats.
Karina’s phone went off. She stared at its screen as it rang, said, “Shit!”
“That your dad?” Amy asked.
The ringing stopped.
Lewis passed the can back to Daisy. It was light. She tipped her head back, finished it.
He said, “Or we could go to MacDonald’s or ice skating or something if you don’t like movies. I’m not bothered if you don’t want to go with me. But just, like, if you did.”
“I don’t mind,” Daisy said. “When?”
The cider can was in her hand. Karina’s phone was ringing again. Daisy could see the litter bin over by the bench, just past Cherry, who was still swinging, still smoking.
Daisy looked at Lewis. He grinned. She grinned back. She felt the can slipping from her fingers, let it go, didn’t even hear it land.