Context: As a child, Holly Sykes heard voices in her head, which she called “the radio people.” Now, a fifteen-year-old, she runs away from home to live with her twenty-four-year-old boyfriend. Arriving at her boyfriend's home Holly finds him in bed with her best friend.
I FLING OPEN MY BEDROOM CURTAINS, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolaty eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh, and by now my heart’s going mental and, God, I wish I was waking up at Vinny’s place in Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom. Last night, the words just said themselves, “Christ, I really love you, Vin,” and Vinny puffed out a cloud of smoke and did this Prince Charles voice, “One must say, one’s frightfully partial to spending time with you too, Holly Sykes,” and I nearly weed myself laughing, though I was a bit narked he didn’t say “I love you too” back. If I’m honest. Still, boyfriends act goofy to hide stuff, any magazine’ll tell you. Wish I could phone him right now. Wish they’d invent phones you can speak to anyone anywhere anytime on. He’ll be riding his Norton to work in Rochester right now, in his leather jacket with LED ZEP spelled out in silver studs. Come September, when I turn sixteen, he’ll take me out on his Norton.
Someone slams a cupboard door, below.
Mam. No one else’d dare slam a door like that.
Suppose she’s found out? says a twisted voice.
No. We’ve been too careful, me and Vinny.
She’s menopausal, is Mam. That’ll be it.
TALKING HEADS’ Fear of Music is on my record player, so I lower the stylus. Vinny bought me this LP, the second Saturday we met at Magic Bus Records. It’s an amazing record. I like “Heaven” and “Memories Can’t Wait” but there’s not a weak track on it. Vinny’s been to New York and actually saw Talking Heads, live. His mate Dan was on security and got Vinny backstage after the gig, and he hung out with David Byrne and the band. If he goes back next year, he’s taking me. I get dressed, finding each love bite and wishing I could go to Vinny’s tonight, but he’s meeting a bunch of mates in Dover. Men hate it when women act jealous, so I pretend not to be. My best friend Stella’s gone to London to hunt for secondhand clothes at Camden Market. Mam says I’m still too young to go to London without an adult so Stella took Ali Jessop instead. My biggest thrill today’ll be hoovering the bar to earn my three pounds’ pocket money. Whoopy-doo. Then I’ve got next week’s exams to revise for. But for two pins I’d hand in blank papers and tell school where to shove Pythagoras triangles and Lord of the Flies and their life cycles of worms. I might, too.
Yeah. I might just do that.
DOWN IN THE kitchen, the atmosphere’s like Antarctica. “Morning,” I say, but only Jacko looks up from the window-seat where he’s drawing. Sharon’s through in the lounge part, watching a cartoon. Dad’s downstairs in the hallway, talking with the delivery guy—the truck from the brewery’s grumbling away in front of the pub. Mam’s chopping cooking apples into cubes, giving me the silent treatment. I’m supposed to say, “What’s wrong, Mam, what have I done?” but sod that for a game of soldiers. Obviously she noticed I was back late last night, but I’ll let her raise the topic. I pour some milk over my Weetabix and take it to the table. Mam clangs the lid onto the pan and comes over. “Right. What have you got to say for yourself?”
“Good morning to you too, Mam. Another hot day.”
“What have you got to say for yourself, young lady?”
If in doubt, act innocent. “ ’Bout what exactly?”
Her eyes go all snaky. “What time did you get home?”
“Okay, okay, so I was a bit late, sorry.”
“Two hours isn’t ‘a bit late.’ Where were you?”
I munch my Weetabix. “Stella’s. Lost track of time.”
“Well, that’s peculiar, now, it really is. At ten o’clock I phoned Stella’s mam to find out where the hell you were, and guess what? You’d left before eight. So who’s the liar here, Holly? You or her?”
Shit. “After leaving Stella’s, I went for a walk.”
“And where did your walk take you to?”
I sharpen each word. “Along the river, all right?”
“Upstream or downstream, was it, this little walk?”
I let a silence go by. “What diff’rence does it make?”
There’re some cartoon explosions on the telly. Mam tells my sister, “Turn that thing off and shut the door behind you, Sharon.”
“That’s not fair! Holly’s the one getting told off.”
“Now, Sharon. And you too, Jacko, I want—” But Jacko’s already vanished. When Sharon’s left, Mam takes up the attack again: “All alone, were you, on your ‘walk’?”
Why this nasty feeling she’s setting me up? “Yeah.”
“How far d’you get on your ‘walk,’ then, all alone?”
“What—you want miles or kilometers?”
“Well, perhaps your little walk took you up Peacock Street, to a certain someone called Vincent Costello?” The kitchen sort of swirls, and through the window, on the Essex shore of the river, a tiny stick-man’s lifting his bike off the ferry. “Lost for words all of a sudden? Let me jog your memory: ten o’clock last night, closing the blinds, front window, wearing a T-shirt and not a lot else.”
Yes, I did go downstairs to get Vinny a lager. Yes, I did lower the blind in the front room. Yes, someone did walk by. Relax, I’d told myself. What’s the chances of one stranger recognizing me? Mam’s expecting me to crumple, but I don’t. “You’re wasted as a barmaid, Mam. You ought to be handling supergrasses for MI5.”
Mam gives me the Kath Sykes Filthy Glare. “How old is he?”
Now I fold my arms. “None of your business.”
Mam’s eyes go slitty. “Twenty-four, apparently.”
“If you already know, why’re you asking?”
“Because a twenty-four-year-old man interfering with a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl is illegal. He could go to prison.”
“I’ll be sixteen in September, and I reckon the Kent police have bigger fish to fry. I’m old enough to make up my own mind about my relationships.”
Mam lights one of her Marlboro Reds. I’d kill for one. “When I tell your father, he’ll flay this Costello fella alive.”
Sure, Dad has to persuade piss-artists off the premises from time to time, all landlords do, but he’s not the flaying-anyone-alive type. “Brendan was fifteen when he was going out with Mandy Fry, and if you think they were just holding hands on the swings, they weren’t. Don’t recall him getting the ‘You could go to prison’ treatment.”
She spells it out like I’m a moron: “It’s—different—for—boys.”
I do an I-do-not-believe-what-I’m-hearing snort.
“I’m telling you now, Holly, you’ll be seeing this … car salesman again over my dead body.”
“Actually, Mam, I’ll bloody see who I bloody well want!”
“New rules.” Mam stubs out her fag. “I’m taking you to school and fetching you back in the van. You don’t set foot outside unless it’s with me, your father, Brendan, or Ruth. If I glimpse this cradle snatcher anywhere near here, I’ll be on the blower to the police to press charges—yes, I will, so help me God. And—and—I’ll call his employer and let them know that he’s seducing underage schoolgirls.”
Big fat seconds ooze by while all of this sinks in.
My tear ducts start twitching but there’s no way I’m giving Mrs. Hitler the pleasure. “This isn’t Saudi Arabia! You can’t lock me up!”
“Live under our roof, you obey our rules. When I was your age—”
“Yeah yeah yeah, you had twenty brothers and thirty sisters and forty grandparents and fifty acres of spuds to dig ’cause that was how life was in Auld feckin’ Oireland but this is England, Mam, England! And it’s the 1980s and if life was so feckin’ glorious in that West Cork bog why did you feckin’ bother even coming to—”
Whack! Smack over the left side of my face.
We look at each other: me trembling with shock and Mam angrier than I’ve ever seen her, and—I reckon—knowing she’s just broken something that’ll never be mended. I leave the room without a word, as if I’ve just won an argument.
I ONLY CRY a bit, and it’s shocked crying, not boo-hoo crying, and when I’m done I go to the mirror. My eyes’re a bit puffy, but a bit of eyeliner soon sorts that out … Dab of lippy, bit of blusher … Sorted. The girl in the mirror’s a woman, with her cropped black hair, her Quadrophenia T-shirt, her black jeans. “I’ve got news for you,” she says. “You’re moving in with Vinny today.” I start listing the reasons why I can’t, and stop. “Yes,” I agree, giddy and calm at once. I’m leaving school, as well. As from now. The summer holidays’ll be here before the truancy officer can fart, and I’m sixteen in September, and then it’s stuff you, Windmill Hill Comprehensive. Do I dare?
I dare. Pack, then. Pack what? Whatever’ll fit into my big duffel bag. Underwear, bras, T-shirts, my bomber jacket; makeup case and the Oxo tin with my bracelets and necklaces in. Toothbrush and a handful of tampons—my period’s a bit late so it should start, like, any hour now. Money. I count up £13.85 saved in notes and coins. I’ve £80 more in my TSB bankbook. It’s not like Vinny’ll charge me rent, and I’ll look for a job next week. Babysitting, working in the market, waitressing: There’s loads of ways to earn a few quid. What about my LPs? I can’t lug the whole collection over to Peacock Street now, and Mam’s quite capable of dumping them at the Oxfam shop out of spite, so I just take Fear of Music, wrapping it carefully in my bomber jacket and putting it into my bag so it won’t get bent. I hide the others under the loose floorboard, just for now, but as I’m putting the carpet back, I get the fright of my life: Jacko’s watching me from the doorway. He’s still in his Thunderbirds pajamas and slippers.
I tell him, “Mister, you just gave me a heart attack.”
“You’re going.” Jacko’s got this not-quite-here voice.
“Just between us, yes, I am. But not far, don’t worry.”
“I’ve made you a souvenir, to remember me by.” Jacko hands me a circle of cardboard—a flattened Dairylea cheese box with a maze drawn on. He’s mad about mazes, is Jacko; it’s all these Dungeons & Dragonsy books him and Sharon read. The one Jacko’s drawn’s actually dead simple by his standards, made of eight or nine circles inside each other. “Take it,” he tells me. “It’s diabolical.”
“It doesn’t look all that bad to me.”
“ ‘Diabolical’ means ‘satanic,’ sis.”
“Why’s your maze so satanic, then?”
“The Dusk follows you as you go through it. If it touches you, you cease to exist, so one wrong turn down a dead end, that’s the end of you. That’s why you have to learn the labyrinth by heart.”
Christ, I don’t half have a freaky little brother. “Right. Well, thanks, Jacko. Look, I’ve got a few things to—”
Jacko holds my wrist. “Learn this labyrinth, Holly. Indulge your freaky little brother. Please.”
That jolts me a bit. “Mister, you’re acting all weird.”
“Promise me you’ll memorize the path through it, so if you ever needed to, you could navigate it in the darkness. Please.”
My friends’ little brothers are all into Scalextric or BMX or Top Trumps—why do I get one who does this and says words like “navigate” and “diabolical”? Christ only knows how he’ll survive in Gravesend if he’s gay. I muss his hair. “Okay, I promise to learn your maze off by heart.” Then Jacko hugs me, which is weird ’cause Jacko’s not a huggy kid. “Hey, I’m not going far … You’ll understand when you’re older, and—”
“You’re moving in with your boyfriend.”
By now I shouldn’t be surprised. “Yeah.”
“Take care of yourself, Holly.”
“Vinny’s nice. Once Mam’s got used to the idea, we’ll see each other—I mean, we still saw Brendan after he married Ruth, yeah?”
But Jacko just puts the cardboard lid with his maze on deep into my duffel bag, gives me one last look, and disappears.
• • •
MAM APPEARS WITH a basket of bar rugs on the first-floor landing, as if she wasn’t lying in wait. “I’m not bluffing. You’re grounded. Back upstairs. You’ve got exams next week. Time you knuckled down and got some proper revision done.”
I grip the banister. “ ‘Our roof, our rules,’ you said. Fine. I don’t want your rules, or your roof, or you hitting me whenever you lose your rag. You’d not put up with that. Would you?”
Mam’s face sort of twitches, and if she says the right thing now, we’ll negotiate. But no, she just takes in my duffel bag and sneers like she can’t believe how stupid I am. “You had a brain, once.”
So I carry on down the stairs to the ground floor.
Above me, her voice tightens. “What about school?”
“You go, then, if school’s so important!”
“I never had the bloody chance, Holly! I’ve always had the pub to run, and you and Brendan and Sharon and Jacko to feed, clothe, and send to school so you won’t have to spend your life mopping out toilets and emptying ashtrays and knackering your back and never having an early night.”
Water off a duck’s back. I carry on downstairs.
“But go on, then. Go. Learn the hard way. I’ll give you three days before Romeo turfs you out. It’s not a girl’s glittering personality that men’re interested in, Holly. It never bloody is.”
I ignore her. From the hallway I see Sharon behind the bar by the fruit juice shelves. She’s helping Dad do the restocking, but I can see she heard. I give her a little wave and she gives me one back, nervous. Echoing up from the cellar trapdoor is Dad’s voice, crooning “Ferry ’Cross the Mersey.” Better leave him out of it. In front of Mam, he’ll side with her. In front of the regulars, it’ll be “It takes a bigger idiot than me to step between the pecking hens” and they’ll all nod and mumble, “Right enough there, Dave.” Plus I’d rather not be in the room when he finds out ’bout Vinny. Not that I’m ashamed, I’d just rather not be there. Newky’s snoozing in his basket. “You’re the smelliest dog in Kent,” I tell him to stop myself crying, “you old fleabag.” I pat his neck, unbolt the side door, and step into Marlow Alley. Behind me, the door goes clunk.
WEST STREET’S TOO bright and too dark, like a TV with the contrast on the blink, so I put on my sunglasses and they turn the world all dreamish and vivider and more real. My throat aches and I’m shaking a bit. Nobody’s running after me from the pub. Good. A cement truck trundles by and its fumy gust makes the conker tree sway a bit and rustle. Breathe in warm tarmac, fried spuds, and week-old rubbish spilling out of the bins—the dustmen are on strike again.
Lots of little darting birds’re twirly-whirlying like the tin-whistlers on strings kids get at birthdays, or used to, and a gang of boys’re playing Kick the Can in the park round the church at Crooked Lane. Get him! Behind the tree! Set me free! Kids. Stella says older men make better lovers; with boys our age, she says, the ice cream melts once the cone’s in your hand. Only Stella knows ’bout Vinny—she was there that first Saturday in the Magic Bus—but she can keep a secret. When she was teaching me to smoke and I kept puking, she didn’t laugh or tell anyone, and she’s told me everything I need to know ’bout boys. Stella’s the coolest girl in our year at school, easy.
Crooked Lane veers up from the river, and from there I turn up Queen Street, where I’m nearly mown down by Julie Walcott pushing her pram. Her baby’s bawling its head off and she looks knackered. She left school when she got pregnant. Me and Vinny are dead careful, and we only had sex once without a condom, our first time, and it’s a scientific fact that virgins can’t get pregnant. Stella told me.
BUNTING’S STRUNG ACROSS Queen Street, like it’s for Holly Sykes’s Independence Day. The Scottish lady in the wool shop’s watering her hanging baskets, and Mr. Gilbert the jeweler’s putting trays of rings into his front windows, and Mike and Todd the butchers’re offloading a headless pig from the back of a van where a dozen carcasses are hanging from hooks. Outside the library a bunch of union men are collecting money in buckets for the striking miners with Socialist Workers holding signs saying COAL NOT DOLE and THATCHER DECLARES WAR ON THE WORKERS. Ed Brubeck’s freewheeling this way on his bike. I step into the Indoor Market so he can’t see me. He moved to Gravesend last year from Manchester, where his dad got sent down for burglary and assault. He doesn’t have any friends and shows no sign of wanting any. Normally that’d get you crucified at our school, but when a sixth-former had a go at him Brubeck punched his nose out of shape, so he’s been left alone since. He cycles by without seeing me, a fishing rod tied to his crossbar, and I carry on. By the games arcade a busker’s playing funeral music on a clarinet. Someone lobs a coin into his case and he bursts into the theme from Dallas. When I get to Magic Bus Records I peer inside. I was looking at R for Ramones. Vinny says he was looking at H for Hot and Horny and Holly. There’s a few secondhand guitars along the back of the shop, too. Vin can play the intro to “Stairway to Heaven,” though he’s never got past that. I’m going to teach myself to play Vin’s guitar while he’s at work. Vin and me could start a band. Why not? Tina Weymouth’s a girl and she’s the bassist in Talking Heads. Imagine Mam’s face if she goes all, “She’s not my daughter anymore,” then sees me on Top of the Pops. Mam’s problem’s that she’s never loved anyone as deeply as me and Vin love each other. She gets on okay with Dad, sure, though all her family in Cork were never crazy about him not being Irish and Catholic. My older Irish cousins enjoyed telling me that Dad got Mum pregnant with Brendan before they were married, but they’ve been married for twenty-five years now, which isn’t bad going, I s’pose, but still, Mam’s not got this amazing bond with Dad like me and Vin. Stella says me and Vin are soul mates. She says it’s obvious, we’re made for each other.
• • •
OUTSIDE NATWEST BANK on Milton Road, I run into Brendan. Moussed-back hair, paisley tie, and his blazer slung over his shoulder, you’d think he was off to Handsome School, not the offices of Stott and Conway. Bit of a heartthrob is my older brother, among my friends’ older sisters—pass me the vomit bucket. He married Ruth, his boss Mr. Conway’s daughter, at the town hall with a flashy reception at the Chaucer Country Club. I wasn’t a bridesmaid ’cause I don’t wear dresses, specially dresses that make you look like a Gone with the Wind collectible, so Sharon and Ruth’s nieces did all that stuff, and loads of our Cork relatives came over. Brendan’s Mam’s golden boy and Mam’s Brendan’s golden mam. Later they’ll be poring over every detail of what I say right now.
“Morning,” I tell him. “How’s it going?”
“Can’t complain. All well at the Captain?”
“Fine. Mam’s full of the joys of spring today.”
“Yeah?” Brendan smiles, puzzled. “How come?”
I shrug. “Must’ve got out on the right side of bed.”
“Cool.” He notices my duffel bag. “Off on a trip, are we?”
“Not exactly. I’m revising French at Stella Yearwood’s—then I’m staying overnight. It’s exams next week.”
My brother looks impressed. “Good for you, little sis.”
“Is Ruth any better?”
“Not a lot. God only knows why it’s called ‘morning sickness’ when it’s worse in the middle of the night.”
“Perhaps it’s Mother Nature’s way of toughening you up for when the baby arrives,” I suggest. “All those sleepless nights, the arguing, the puke … Needs stamina.”
My brother doesn’t take the bait. “Guess so.” It’s hard to imagine Brendan being anyone’s dad but, come Christmas, he will be.
Behind us the NatWest opens its doors and the bank clerks start filing in. “Not that Mr. Conway’ll fire his son-in-law,” I say to Brendan, “but don’t you start at nine?”
“This is true. See you tomorrow, if you’re back from your revision-a-thon. Mam’s invited us over for lunch. Have a great day.”
“It’s the best day of my life already,” I tell my brother and, in a secondhand way, Mam.
One flash of his award-winning smile and Brendan’s off, joining the streams of people in suits and uniforms all going to work in offices and shops and factories.
ON MONDAY, I’LL get a key cut for Vinny’s front door, but today I go the usual secret way. Up a street called the Grove, just before the tax office, there’s this alley, half hidden by a skip overflowing with bin bags smelling of bubbling nappies. A brown rat watches me, like Lord Muck. I go down the alley, turn right, and now I’m between Peacock Street’s back-garden fences and the tax-office wall. Down the far end, the last house before the railway cutting, that’s Vinny’s place. I squeeze through the loose slats and wade through his back garden. The grass and weeds come up to my waist and the plum trees are already fruiting up, though most of the fruit’ll go to the wasps and the worms, Vinny says, ’cause he can’t be arsed to pick it. It’s like the forest in Sleeping Beauty that chokes the castle when everyone’s asleep for a hundred years. Vinny’s s’posed to keep the garden neat for his aunt but she lives up in King’s Lynn and never visits and, anyway, Vinny’s a motorbike guy, not a gardener. Once I’m settled in, I’ll tame this jungle. It needs a woman’s touch, that’s all. Might make a start today, after a session teaching myself the guitar. There’s a shed in the corner half hidden by brambles, with gardening gear and a lawnmower. Sunflowers, roses, pansies, carnations, lavender, and herbs in little terra-cotta pots, that’s what I’ll plant. I’ll make scones and plum pies and coffee cakes and Vinny’ll be all, “Jesus, Holly, how did I ever get by without you?” All the magazines say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. By the rainwater barrel a fingery purple bush is swarming with white butterflies, all confetti and lace; it’s like it’s alive.
• • •
THE BACK DOOR’S never locked ’cause Vinny’s lost the key. Our pizza boxes and wineglasses’re still in the sink from last night, but no sign of breakfast—Vinny must’ve overslept and raced off to work, as per usual. The whole place needs a good tidying, dusting, hoovering. First a coffee and a fag’s in order, though—I only ate half my Weetabix before Mam started her Muhammad Ali act on me. I forgot to get any ciggies on the way up—it flew out of my head after meeting Brendan—but Vinny keeps some in his bedside table, so I pad up the steep stairs and into his bedroom. Our bedroom, I should say. The curtains are still drawn and the air’s like old socks so I let the light in, open the window, turn round, and jump out of my skin ’cause Vinny’s in bed, looking like he’s cacked himself. “It’s me, it’s only me,” I sort of gupper. “Sorry, I—I—I—I thought you were at work.”
He claps his hand over his heart and sort of laughs, like he’d just been shot. “Jesus, Hol. I thought you were a burglar!”
I sort of laugh too. “You’re … at home.”
“Cock-up with the rota—the new secretary’s bloody hopeless—so Kev phoned to say I’ve got the day off, after all.”
“Brill,” I say. “That’s great, ’cause … I’ve got a surprise.”
“Great, I love them. But put the kettle on first, eh? I’ll be right down. Shit, what am I saying? I’m out of coffee—be a sweetheart, pop out to Staffa’s and get a jar of Gold Blend. I’ll pay, uh, you when you get back.”
I need to say this first: “Mam found out ’bout us, Vin.”
“Oh? Oh.” He looks thoughtful. “Right. How did she, uh …”
Suddenly I’m scared he won’t want me. “Not great. Went a bit apeshit, actually. Told me I couldn’t see you again and, like, threatened to lock me in the cellar. So I walked out. So …”
Vinny looks at me nervously, not taking the hint.
“So can I … like … stay with you? For a bit, at least.”
Vinny swallows. “O-kay … Right. I see. Well. Okay.”
It doesn’t sound very okay. “Is that a yes, Vin?”
“Ye-es. Sure. Yes. But now I really need that coffee.”
“Serious? Oh, Vin!” The relief’s like a warm bath. I hug him. He’s sweaty. “You’re the best, Vinny. I was afraid you might not …”
“We can’t have a furry-purry sex kitten like you sleeping under a bridge now, can we? But really, Hol, I need coffee like Dracula needs blood, so—” He doesn’t finish the sentence ’cause I’m kissing him, my Vinny, my boyfriend who’s been to New York and shaken David Byrne’s hand, and my love for him sort of goes whoosh, like a boiler firing up, and I pull him back and we roll onto a lumpy hill of duvet, but the hill wriggles and my hand pulls the sheet away and here’s my best friend Stella Yearwood. Stark naked. Like I’m in a bad sex dream, only it’s not.
I just … gape at her crotch till she says, “It can’t look so very different to yours, can it?”
Then I gape at Vinny, who looks like he’s shat himself but then does this spazzo giggle: “It’s not what it looks like.”
Stella, cool as you please, covers herself with the sheet and tells Vinny, “Don’t be dense. This is precisely how it looks, Holly. We were going to let you know but, as you see, events have overtaken us all. Fact is, you’ve been dumped. Not pleasant, but it happens to the best of us, well, most of us, so c’est la vie. Don’t worry, there are plenty more Vinnys in the sea. So why not cut your losses now and just go? With a little dignity intact?”
WHEN I STOP crying, finally, I find myself on a cold step in a little courtyard place, with five or six stories of old brick and narrow blind windows on each side. Weeds drilling up through paving slabs and dandelion seeds drifting around like snow in a snow globe. After I slammed Vinny’s door my feet brought me here, round the back of the Gravesend General Hospital, where Dr. Marinus got rid of Miss Constantin for me when I was seven years old. Did I punch Vinny? It was like I was moving in treacle. I couldn’t breathe. He caught my wrist and it hurt—still does—and Stella was barking, “Grow up and piss off, Holly. This is real life not an episode of Dynasty!” and I ran out, slamming the front door and hurrying as fast I could, anywhere, nowhere, somewhere … I knew the moment I stopped I’d break down into a sobbing, snotting jelly, and then one of Mam’s spies’d see me and report back and that’d be the cherry on her cake. ’Cause Mam was right. I loved Vinny like he was a part of me, and he loved me like a stick of gum. He’d spat me out when the flavor went, unwrapped another, and stuffed it in, and not just anyone, but Stella Yearwood. My best mate. How could he? How could she?
Stop crying! Think about something else …
HOLLY SYKES AND the Weird Shit, Part 1. I was seven years old in 1976. It didn’t rain all summer and the gardens turned brown, and I remember queuing with buckets down the end of Queen Street with Brendan and Mam for water from standpipes, the drought got that bad. My daymares started that summer. I heard voices in my head. Not mad, or drooly, or specially scary, even, not at first … the Radio People, I called them, ’cause at first I thought there was a radio on in the next room. Only there never was a radio on in the next room. They were clearest at night, but I heard them at school, too, if everything was quiet enough, in a test, say. Three or four voices’d chunter away at once, and I never quite made out what they were saying. Brendan had talked ’bout mental hospitals and men in white coats, so I didn’t dare tell anyone. Mam was pregnant with Jacko, Dad rushed off his feet at the pub, Sharon was only three, and Brendan was a plonker, even then. I knew hearing voices wasn’t normal, but they weren’t actually harming me, so maybe it was just one of those secrets people live with.
One night, I had a nightmare about killer bees loose in the Captain Marlow, and woke up in a sweat. A lady was sat at the end of my bed saying, “Don’t worry, Holly, it’s all right,” and I said, “Thanks, Mam,” ’cause who else could it be? Then I heard Mam laughing in the kitchen down the corridor—this was before my bedroom was up in the attic. That was how I knew I’d only dreamt the lady on my bed, and I switched on the light to prove it.
And sure enough nobody was there.
“Don’t be afraid,” said the lady, “but I’m as real as you are.”
I didn’t scream or freak out. Sure, I was shaking, but even in my fear, I felt it was like a puzzle or a test. There was nobody in my room, but someone was speaking to me. So, as calm as I could, I asked the lady if she was a ghost. “Not a ghost,” said the lady who wasn’t there, “but a visitor to your mind. That’s why you can’t see me.” I asked what my visitor’s name was. Miss Constantin, she said. She said she’d sent the Radio People away, because they were a distraction, and hoped I didn’t mind. I said no. Miss Constantin said she had to go but that she’d love to drop by soon because I was “a singular young lady.”
Then she was gone. It took me ages to fall asleep, but by the time I did, I sort of felt I’d made a friend.
About the book:
Holly is no typical teenage runaway: A sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.
Snippet from The Underground Railroad
- Colson Whitehead
Snippet from The Shadow Lines
- Amitav Ghosh