Twenty

Dad’s taking ages to discover I’m missing. I wish he’d hurry up because my left leg’s gone to sleep and I need to move before I get gangrene or something. I shuffle to a squatting position, grab a jumper from the shelf above me and push it down with one hand amongst the shoes so that I have a better place to sit. The wardrobe door creaks open a fraction as I settle. It sounds very loud for a moment. Then it stops.

‘Tess?’ The bedroom door eases open and Dad tiptoes across the carpet. ‘Mum’s here. Didn’t you hear me call?’

Through the crack in the wardrobe door I see the confusion on his face as he realizes that the bundle on my bed is only the duvet. He lifts it up and looks underneath, as if I might’ve shrunk into someone very small since he last saw me at breakfast.

‘Shit!’ he says, and he rubs a hand across his face as if he doesn’t understand, walks over to the window and looks out at the garden. Beside him, on the ledge, is a green glass apple. I was given it for being a bridesmaid at my cousin’s wedding. I was twelve and recently diagnosed. I remember people telling me how lovely I looked with my bald head wrapped in a floral headscarf, when all the other girls had real flowers in their hair.

Dad picks up the apple and holds it up to the morning. There are swirls of cream and brown in there that look like the core of a real apple; an impression of pips, blown in by the glassmaker. He spins it slowly in his hand. I’ve looked at the world through that green glass many times – it looks small and calm.

I don’t think he should be touching my things though. I think he should be dealing with Cal, who’s yelling up the stairs about the aerial coming out of the back of the TV. I also think he should go down and tell Mum that the only reason he’s asked her round is because he wants her back. Getting involved in matters of discipline goes against all her principles, so he’s hardly looking for advice in that area.

He puts down the apple and goes to the bookshelf, runs a finger along the spines of my books, like they’re piano keys and he’s expecting a tune. He twists his head to look up at the CD rack, picks one out, reads the cover, then puts it back.

‘Dad!’ Cal yells from downstairs. ‘The picture’s completely fuzzy and Mum’s useless!’

Dad sighs, moves towards the door, but can’t resist the temptation to pull the duvet straight as he passes. He reads my wall for a bit – all the things I’m going to miss, all the things I want. He shakes his head at it, then bends down and picks up a T-shirt from the floor, folds it and places it on my pillow. And that’s when he notices my bedside drawer is slightly open.

Cal’s getting closer. ‘I’m missing my programmes!’

‘Go back down, Cal! I’m coming now.’

But he isn’t. He’s sitting on the edge of my bed and sliding the drawer open with one finger. Inside are pages and pages of words I’ve written about my list. My thoughts on the things I’ve already done – sex, yes, drugs, breaking the law – and my plans for the rest. It’s going to freak him out if he reads what I intend to do for number five today. There’s the rustle of paper, the shift of the elastic band. It sounds very loud. I struggle to sit up in order to jump out of the wardrobe and wrestle him to the ground, but Cal saves me by opening the bedroom door. Dad fumbles the papers back into the drawer, slams it shut.

‘Can’t I have any peace?’ he says. ‘Not even for five minutes?’

‘Were you looking at Tessa’s stuff?’

‘Is it any business of yours?’

‘It is if I tell her.’

‘Oh for God’s sake, give me a break!’ Dad’s footsteps pound down the stairs. Cal follows him.

I clamber out of the wardrobe and rub life back into my legs. I can feel the curdle of sluggish blood at my knee, and my foot has gone completely dead. I hobble over to the bed and plonk myself down just as Cal comes back in.

He looks at me in surprise. ‘Dad said you weren’t here.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Yeah, you are!’

‘Keep your voice down. Where’s he gone?’

Cal shrugs. ‘He’s in the kitchen with Mum. I hate him. He just called me a bugger and then he said the f-word.’

‘Are they talking about me?’

‘Yeah, and they won’t let me watch the telly!’

We creep down the stairs and peer over the banister. Dad’s perched on a bar stool in the middle of the kitchen. He looks clumsy up there digging around in his trouser pocket for his cigarettes and lighter. Mum stands with her back against the fridge watching him.

‘When did you start smoking again?’ she says. She’s wearing jeans and has tied her hair back so that strands of it hang loose around her face. She looks young and pretty as she passes him a saucer.

Dad lights the cigarette and blows smoke across the room. ‘I’m sorry, it looks like I got you here under false pretences.’ He looks confused for a moment, as if he doesn’t know what to say next. ‘I just thought you could talk some sense into her.’

‘Where do you reckon she’s gone this time?’

‘Knowing her, she’s probably on her way to the airport!’

Mum chuckles, and it’s strange because it makes her seem more alive than Dad somehow. He smiles grimly at her from his stool, runs a hand over his hair. ‘I’m bloody knackered.’

‘I can see that.’

‘The boundaries change all the time. One minute she doesn’t want anyone near her, then she wants to be held for hours. She won’t leave the house for days, then disappears when I’m least expecting it. This list of hers is doing my head in.’

‘You know,’ Mum says, ‘the only really right thing anyone could do would be to make her well again, and none of us can do that.’

He looks at her very intently. ‘I’m not sure how much more I can manage by myself. Some mornings I can hardly bear to open my eyes.’

Cal nudges me. ‘Shall I gob at him?’ he whispers.

‘Yeah. Get it in his cup.’

He gathers spit in his mouth and gobs it out hard. His aim’s rubbish. It barely makes it through the door; most of it just slimes down his chin and onto the hall carpet.

I roll my eyes at him and gesture for him to follow me. We go back upstairs to my room.

‘Sit on the floor by the door,’ I tell him. ‘Put your hands over your face and don’t let either of them in.’

‘What’re you going to do?’

‘I’m getting dressed.’

‘Then what are you going to do?’

I take off my pyjamas, step into my best knickers and ease myself into the silk dress I bought on my shopping spree with Cal. I rub the fizz of pins and needles from my feet and pull on my strappy shoes.

Cal says, ‘Do you want to see my Megazord? You’ll have to come to my room because it’s defending a city and if I move it, everyone will die.’

I get my coat from the back of the chair. ‘I’m in a bit of a hurry actually.’

He peeps at me between his fingers. ‘That’s your adventuring dress!’

‘Yeah.’

He stands up, blocking the door. ‘Can I come?’

‘No.’

‘Please. I hate it here.’

‘No.’

I leave my phone because they can trace you from that. I stuff the papers from the drawer in my coat pocket. I’ll chuck them in a bin somewhere later. See, Dad, how things disappear in front of your eyes?

Before I send him downstairs, I bribe Cal. He knows exactly how many magic tricks he can buy with a tenner, and understands he’ll get written out of my will if he ever squeals I was here.

I wait until I hear him down there, then I follow slowly behind. I pause on the turn of the stair, not only for breath, but also to look through the window over the flat of the lawn, to brush a finger along the wall, to encircle a spindle of the banisters, to smile at the photos at the top of the stairs.

In the kitchen, Cal squats on the floor in front of Mum and Dad and simply stares at them.

‘Did you want something?’ Dad says.

‘I want to listen.’

‘Sorry, it’s grown-up talk.’

‘I want something to eat then.’

‘You’ve just had half a packet of biscuits.’

‘I’ve got some chewing gum,’ Mum says. ‘Do you want a bit of that?’ She looks in her jacket pocket and hands it over.

Cal stuffs the gum in his mouth, chews it thoughtfully, then says, ‘When Tessa dies, can we go on holiday?’

Dad manages to look vicious and surprised at the same time. ‘That’s a terrible thing to say!’

‘I don’t even remember going to Spain. It’s the only time I’ve been in an aeroplane and it was so long ago, it might not even be true.’

Dad says, ‘That’s enough!’ and he goes to stand up, but Mum stops him.

‘It’s all right,’ she says, and she turns to Cal. ‘Tessa’s been sick for a long time, hasn’t she? You must feel really left out sometimes.’

He grins. ‘Yeah. Some mornings I can hardly bear to open my eyes.’

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