Penny By Amanda Marples
They said picking litter was better than a custodial. Wankers. It was only paint. They were dead anyway.
The probation officer made me write a letter to the family of the dead bloke. He stood over me in his boiling-hot office while I slumped, head cradled in my arms on his desk. I could hardly spell, even though I was sixteen. It’s what happens if you wag school as much as I did.
I didn’t care. And I wasn’t sorry.
‘Your Dad’s not going to like this Liam’ he said. ‘And I will have to tell him.’
He loved saying that, the prick.
So, I struggled my way through vandalism and desecrated. Better than a good hiding off my Dad. I spent the rest of the meeting picking the plastic off the chair leg. I signed a paper at the end, agreeing to pick up shit in the cemetery. Referral orders should be supervised but that sad sandal-wearing bastard left me to it. Fine by me. It was summer, it got me out of the stupid course I’d been forced to take. Chance to have a spliff in peace. Even a stupid, bad kid like me could make it work.
The day I found Penny I’d done my two hours. It was teatime, but pointless going home. It was giro day, so they’d both be pissed and chances were I’d get an empty plate and a slap. I’d rather hang about with the dead people, belly rumbling. I was wandering about kicking stones and smoking when I heard a sound from inside the abandoned crematorium at the top of the graveyard. It had dark, almost black bricks; dandelions sprouting from under the huge oak doors which I’d booted once or twice; windows boarded up with steel. I’d pressed an eye up against the perforations before but hadn’t been able to see anything.
I watched, the sound of my own blood thumping in my ears.
Eventually I went round the back, where it was thick with brambles and dead trees. I worked my way in, ignoring the thorns and snapping branches. There was a loose shutter. My legs felt watery, like when I’ve just blasted something up on a freshly buffed wall. I worked my fingers under the metal and felt something resisting. I felt a slap at my fingers. A human hand, hot and trembling.
‘Fuck!’ I shouted, stumbling backwards. Dead twigs poked through my t-shirt, damp with sweat. ‘Who’s in there?’
‘Please keep your voice down.’ A woman’s voice. Soft. Each word said right. I heaved myself up. Midges fuzzed in a cloud around my head.
‘Let me in and I won’t fetch the pigs. Or the council.’ I said into the dark gap of the window. Blackbirds sang in the stillness.
‘Alright’. She said, sounding like she’d walked a thousand miles and found nothing at the other end.
It was like a furnace inside.
She had a torch, three or four books and a flask, arranged on sagging cardboard boxes full of mouldy funeral papers or some shit, which she’d pushed into a circle. In the middle was a green velvet cushion. Sunlight punched in through the holes in the shutters, splitting up the darkness. A patch of light glowed on her cheekbone, turning the eye above into gold. The rest of her was in shadow. She poured tea from the flask and held the cap out to me. I shook my head. She sipped it herself.
‘You aren’t picking litter for fun,’ she said, ‘so I must assume you did something wrong.’
I clicked my tongue. ‘Why you bothered?’
‘Just interested.’ She smiled, like she was in a café at the seaside.
‘Got caught writing on shit,’ I said, shrugging.
‘Well. Do you enjoy writing on shit?’ She was looking at me in the half-darkness and I looked away at the dust and spores chasing in the maze of light around us.
‘I don’t do nothing I don’t want to.’
She put her tea down. ‘Please don’t tell anyone I’m here,’ she said. ‘it would be very bad for me.’
She talked like someone off those programmes where they call the front room the parlour. She wore a clean pink cardigan, a tiny gold cross on a chain, a wedding ring on her finger. She was older than my mother, younger than Dougie’s Nan.
I stayed until it got dark.
I visited her all summer, the referral order long finished. Autumn rustled in; soft leaves piled up in the park. I got my tag up on bins, on substations. It had changed, and my early tags looked babyish to me. I showed her a throw-up once, sprayed it on the inside of the wall for her. She said she liked it, how it curled and swooped.
By the time the blackberries were rotting on the bushes outside, she’d told me her house was a street away and her husband still lived there. She explained by showing me the scar on her shoulder where he’d got her with the iron. She’d been asleep in bed at the time. I was on my feet, rigid and shaking, shouting I’d fucking kill him. She held my arms; told me it wouldn’t help. I think I loved her by then.
She read to me from her book that night, but I couldn’t concentrate. I had a fight later on with Dean Reddy, who thought he was hard taking fags off younger kids.
I showed him what hard was.
I went home, my knuckles split and singing a song and thought about my parents slapping at each other, knocking over the coffee table and sometimes our Carly if she got in the way. It felt different to Penny’s situation, but I couldn’t explain how.
This full-weight prick had been hitting her for years. He kept her poor. But he was a drunk, so it was easy to make him believe she’d left him. She told me she’d had the idea at her sister’s funeral.
‘I couldn’t let her be in the earth,’ she said, ‘and carry on being so weak.’
She’d scoped the crematorium out while he was at work, built herself up to breaking in. I’d moved on to twoccing cars by the time she told me this. I’d tell them I was fucked-up, if I got caught. Shitty parents, boo-hoo. Social services had already been round about our Carly. Spraining a four-year-old’s wrist doesn’t take much. I’d get an ankle bangle at worst. So what?
She existed in that place with her books, creeping back like a mouse when she knew he was at work to refill her flask, change her clothes, bin the dirty ones. I imagined her cramming a sandwich – eyes wide, heart racing – and it made me puke. I asked her what if he came home early? Or sobered up enough to notice the knicker drawer thinning out? Water trembled in the rims of her eyes, but she said nothing.
She read to me. I stole cars. She told me I was bright and could do more. I smoked weed all night in the park.
I felt like I was running and standing still. I think we both did.
She started to slow down. Sometimes she was asleep when I arrived.
In late October I got a girl pregnant and told her to get rid of it. I told Penny and she cried.
I cried too, and then battered someone the next night.
I forget who.
Winter rushed at us. Biting rain. Bone-shaking, breath-stealing wind. No good for writing. Paint slides straight off the wall or blows back in your face. Condensation ran down the kitchen walls at home. I got arrested for possession. Just a caution, but they kicked me off the course. I couldn’t tell her.
She was losing weight, even with the bits I brought in, and she stopped reading. Rainwater pooled under the crematorium door. The roof leaked. I said I’d break in the house and find her bank cards so she could get away. She shook her head.
One bitter night after I’d made her eat, she said, ‘I’ll die if I stay here.’ I felt something building up in my fists. I wanted to shout at her for giving up. For drinking water from a rusty cemetery tap meant for dying flowers for dead bodies. For being a stupid bitch. Instead I threw my hoodie over her.
‘Fuck this,’ I said, turning away.
‘Where do you live, Liam?’ she said, soft as feathers. She was laying on her side, just a pile of sticks, but her eyes looked like they were burning from the weak light of her torch.
I screwed my face up. ‘Tann Street. Number twelve. Why?’
But she’d closed her eyes. I looked at her one last time. She reminded me of an advert for neglected dogs. I was glad when I sliced my hand on the steel shutter on my way out into the frozen night.
I didn’t go back for a week.
I’d robbed her a fibre optic Christmas tree to make it up to her but when I arrived, she’d gone.
Only the green cushion and the books, swollen from damp were left behind. I kicked the boxes of paper and the tree around and screamed and swore at the walls and then sobbed like a little fucking boy.
I looked for her, certain she’d gone back home to be a statistic. But I never saw her again.
Daffodils were pushing through when the first book arrived addressed to me in small, even handwriting. Great Expectations. I went back to college. I made sure our Carly’s wrists stayed intact.
Every spring a different book. The Catcher in the Rye was the last one, same as all the rest: no note.
Postmarked Andalusia, Spain.
The next summer I packed all seven books into my holdall between socks and T-shirts and the card our Carly had made. Good Luck at Uni! in bubble letters.
She was eleven, and tall like me. She’d be fine.
I kissed my useless parents and felt nothing but pity. Then I walked away, like she had.
Without looking back.