(Enjoy the Silence #2)
by F.J. Campbell
As I drove back into Middon-upon-Frome, I wound down my window, partly to rid my VW camper van of the smell of stale alcohol, and partly so that I could breath in the air of my home town. I felt like I’d been away for so long, when in reality it’d only been a couple of months.
I slowed down and scanned the familiar streets in the near darkness. I loved this place, even though I knew it was a dump; even though I left voluntarily for months at a time. Returning to Middon, I always felt like the town had been waiting for me.
Usually, I stopped in at home to see my mum, Julie. Then, after a quick hello, I would knock next door to see Heather, Alistair and Mrs Sullivan. After that, we’d walk to the pub, to see Matt Lorenzi. This time, it was different.
This time, I had to get my passenger home before they noticed anything was amiss. I was hoping that Mrs Sullivan wouldn’t be at home tonight. Ali was at Uni. And Lorenzi could go to hell.
I listened to the steady hum of her breathing. The traffic lights at the southern end of the High Street turned red and I slammed my foot on the brake. I glanced over my shoulder. Still asleep.
‘Good evening Daniel,’ barked a voice at my elbow. ‘How are you, young man?’
Shit. I hadn’t noticed Mr De Vere, who was now peering in through the open window. Gulp. This was bad news.
‘Um. Hello Mr De Vere. How are you?’
‘Fair to middling, m’boy, fair to middling. Bit of back trouble, swing’s off I’m afraid. Home for half term, are you, eh?’
‘Er. Yes, that’s right, half term.’ I was sweating. I had to get rid of De Vere, before she woke up and gave herself away.
‘Anything wrong, Daniel? Have you got someone back there?’ He tried to bend his head past me, so I shifted in my seat to block his view. He peered at me. His face was so close, I could smell whisky on his breath. At least he wouldn’t catch a whiff of the vapours in my van. ‘Got a gal in there, have you, young lad? That’s it, isn’t it?’ He slapped the side of the camper with a gruesome wink. I blushed. ‘Righto, I’ll let you get off then. Wouldn’t want to delay you, what ho.’ With one last attempt to see around me, he shuffled off down the High Street, in the direction of the river. I breathed out.
Fuck, that was close.
When the lights turned green, I put my foot down and drove past the Rainbow Café, noticing a girl I didn’t know sitting alone at a table by the window. I caught a glimpse of her profile, dark hair and a long, straight nose, but nothing more. I passed Ladbrokes and a boarded-up estate agents next to the SPAR. After that was the library, its shuttered doors closed and covered with graffiti. At the top end of the High Street, I turned left at the derelict hotel, along the river, and then at the bridge, left again, into Bridge Lane. I drove straight past my front door, checking that there were lights on, and parked instead at the gate to the Sullivans’ house. Every window was dark. There was a good chance I could manage to get her in before her mum came back.
I cut the engine and climbed out, walking around the side of the camper furthest away from our house and quietly slid open the side door. I stepped up inside and put my hand on her shoulder, shaking her gently. She stirred, blinked her eyes open and groaned, groping her hand and grabbing mine. She hauled herself up just in time to reach the bucket that I held and was silently sick into it. Again. I watched the familiar sight, trying not to laugh, which she hated, then looked out of the window to check the two houses and so she would know I wasn’t watching her, which she also hated.
‘Danny?’ Her voice was husky and hurt.
I turned my face back to her. ‘We’re home.’
‘Is she there?’
‘Don’t think so. It’s dark, and at mine the kitchen light’s on. Could be they’re getting sloshed.’ I pulled her up with our joined hands and slung her arm around my shoulders. She was warm and soft and smelled really, really bad. She pulled away from me and scowled. I chuckled.
She stepped towards the gate and lifted it slightly as she swung it open, to make sure it didn’t squeak. At the front door, she lifted a plant pot and swept her hand under it. The key bounced down the steps and clinked twice, sounding louder than it really was in the quiet of the street. She snapped it up in her hand and froze. After a moment, she turned the key in the lock and passed through the door tentatively. She turned to me, made the sign with her hands on her cheek that she needed to sleep, mouthed ‘Thanks,’ and disappeared inside.
I sighed, left the step, grabbed my bag from the camper, closed the door with a bang and turned the key in the lock. I hadn’t even reached my front door when Julie opened it and flung her arms around me. Definitely sloshed. I kissed her flushed cheek and ushered her back inside. Mrs Sullivan was there, two wine glasses on the kitchen table. She stood up and hugged me too.
‘We thought you’d have been back yesterday; you said the third, didn’t you? Why didn’t you call?’ asked Julie, beaming at me. ‘Are you hungry? Would you like some wine?’
‘Is there any left?’ I asked with a grin.
‘Wine would be great. I’m not hungry yet, thanks.’ I fetched a glass from the side of the sink and pressed the nozzle on the wine box. I sat down next to Julie and opposite Mrs Sullivan and smiled at them both.
Julie stroked my hair out of my face. ‘Your hair grew.’
‘That can happen.’
Mrs Sullivan said, ‘Are you coming tomorrow night, to the bonfire?’
I nodded. ‘That’s the plan.’
‘Do you think Heather will be all right by then too?’ Mrs Sullivan gave me a meaningful look over the top of her glasses.
Oh. I slumped back in my chair and looked up at the ceiling.
‘We weren’t born yesterday, you know.’ Julie frowned at me. Mrs Sullivan pushed herself up from her chair and sighed.
‘You don’t have to go, she’s fine. She just needs to sleep. Honestly.’
‘Daniel. I’m Heather’s mother. You two, you can’t fool me.’
I shrugged. ‘I’m not trying to fool you. Any more. But she called me from a friend’s house and I picked her up.’ The lie slipped out smoothly. ‘No big deal. She’s not going anywhere until the morning.’ I raised my eyebrows hopefully at Mrs Sullivan, who sighed and sat down again.
‘What was it this time?’
‘Argument with Matt.’
Mrs Sullivan exchanged a look with Julie. ‘What about?’
‘Maybe you should ask her. In the morning.’
I sipped my wine, which I didn’t really want, and listened to the two women talk. Mrs Sullivan was complaining about the graffiti on the Welcome to Middon town sign.
‘Who would do such a thing? It’s atrocious. The youths in this town need to start taking responsibility for their actions. They spray this graffiti and then wonder why no one will employ them.’
Julie nodded. ‘It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.’
‘They’re just bored,’ I protested. ‘It’s soul-destroying, living in a place like Middon, with no reason to get out of bed every day. They feel like their lives are meaningless. We’re talking about teenagers – don’t you find that shocking, that someone my age should feel like that? The graffiti is their way of expressing themselves.’
‘If they’re so bored, then they should get a job.’
‘What job? Where? You want a job, you have to leave Middon. Everyone here is just waiting around, waiting to leave, waiting for something to happen to them, waiting to get arrested, waiting to die. It grinds them down.’
Mrs Sullivan shook her head. ‘That’s no excuse. The things that happen here, right here in Middon-upon-Frome, are staggering. An elderly lady was mugged, in broad daylight, last week. And every year for the last decade there’s been an increase in crimes like assault and grievous bodily harm. Are you saying that it’s acceptable? Just because they’re bored?’
‘No, I’m just-’
‘Daniel, you manage to go to school and earn money. You’re not out committing crimes and taking drugs on the streets every night.’
‘Yeah well I’m lucky. I’ve got you two breathing down my neck.’ I finished my glass and listened to them trying to set the world – or at least Middon – to rights. Despite the defence of my fellow youths, I detested this about my town. The violence – especially against women - was a permanent fixture of our lives and we’d all been taught from an early age to not venture into town alone at night. The irony that I’d just picked up Heather from a potentially dangerous situation and then lied about it to her mother was not lost on me. I yawned. ‘I’m exhausted, I think I’ll turn in.’ I kissed Julie and trudged to the door with my bag over my shoulder.
‘Have you got any washing?’
‘In the morning,’ I repeated, laughing kindly at her.
My room was just as I’d left it. I drew the curtains back, glancing over and up to Heather’s attic window, which was dark. For a while, I lay fully clothed on my bed and let my thoughts drift back to last night.
I’d been driving along the A354 and had seen her on the side of the road, walking unsteadily, wearing an unfamiliar dress and a feather boa wrapped around her shoulders. I didn’t have to look twice, I’d recognise her anywhere. I pulled over and shouted at her over the roar of the traffic.
‘Heather. What the fuck are you doing here?’
She jerked her head towards me, startled, tore open the passenger door and clambered in, grinning dozily at me, her eyes wild and glittering, her hair plastered to her head. She had no shoes on. Unbelievable. I pulled back onto the road.
‘Dannyboy, it is quite simply grand to see you,’ she burbled. ‘I was just trying to hi… hi… have you?’
I reached behind my seat and retrieved a bucket, handing it to her. She was sick into it.
‘Sorry,’ she mumbled, smoothing her hair off her face as best she could. She was quiet for a moment. ‘Grand. To see you.’
I was speechless. I turned off the road, pulled over in a side street and killed the engine, staring straight ahead until she managed to explain herself.
‘Can I sleep, please?’ she asked in a small voice.
‘Not before you tell me what the fuck you are doing at two o’clock in the morning, partially clothed, off your head, in the middle of nowhere.’
‘It’s a long story. Sleep? Please?’
She slammed her head back against the headrest and groaned. ‘You are so stubborn. He’s at a party. I left him there. We broke up.’
How many times had I heard her say that? ‘He let you leave, on your own, in the middle of the night? I’m going to slaughter him.’
‘It’s very chilval… chirelv… kind of you. But there’s no need. I took care of the slaughtering myself, before I left.’
I stared at her. ‘What? What did you do?’
‘Not entirely sure. But I think he might have a black eye later on today.’
She shrugged. ‘He deserved it.’
‘No doubt. What was it this time?’
‘Just the usual. I’m done, Danny, that’s it. Time to say goodbye to Matteo Lorenzi. Time to…’ she waved her hand slowly away from her… ‘move on.’
‘Right.’ I took a deep breath, a thought forming in my head, then quickly thought about something else. I pushed my hair out of my face. ‘OK. Sleep, then.’ She climbed into the back. ‘Here, take this, just in case.’ I handed her the bucket. ‘Lie on your side.’
She flopped down onto the bed and covered herself with the blanket. A sigh, a rustle and then her breathing slowed. She must have been exhausted. I turned on the ignition again and pulled back out onto the road towards Middon. My anger towards Heather faded and my breathing returned to normal. I had her now, she was safe, no one could hurt her. At the heath, I parked the van and slept myself for a couple of hours in my seat, my jacket pulled up over my shoulders. Late morning, I woke and made coffee on the portable stove. I toasted some bread and sipped at my coffee, watching her sleep. She’d be out for a few hours yet and anyway, I wanted to wait until later in the day to get her back home.
I looked at her, peaceful in her sleep, and a lump came to my throat. If what she said was true, if she and Lorenzi were no longer together, well thank Christ for that. There had been an inevitability about Heather and him, and at the time it had started, the summer before last, I’d eventually resigned myself to it, told myself that the sooner it started, the sooner it would be over. Lorenzi was irresistible to girls. Heather was a girl. It had taken him a while to get to her, but get to her he had.
She’d told me then that they were just fooling around, that it meant nothing. She’d said they were only kissing and that she didn’t plan on sleeping with him. Maybe that was true at the time, but I was sure that wasn’t the case any more, because I knew Matt Lorenzi and it wasn’t possible that he could go out with a girl for that long without having sex with her. Three and half minutes was about the usual time before girls had sex with him. But I couldn’t ask Heather because we’d argued about it then, and we’d said some terrible things to each other. Now we skirted round the subject.
I dreaded Heather getting hurt by that dickhead. Nothing I’d said had made any difference to her. Once, when I had told her that Ali thought Lorenzi was “something she needed to get out of her system”, she’d agreed. She’d even said that he was out of her system. But since then, they’d got back together. I shivered at the thought of what Heather’s system had in it now. The longer it went on, the more I worried about how much he was going to break her heart. Lorenzi was good at breaking girls’ hearts - there were hundreds, maybe thousands of them, lying around Dorset, gasping their lasts.
And now, apparently, it was over. Again. I wasn’t buying it, though. This wasn’t the first time Lorenzi had flirted with other girls, even been caught red-handed by Heather, but he’d always talked his way out of trouble and she’d always forgiven him. True, she’d never hit him before. But she was hammered this time, and I knew that anything could happen when she’d been drinking. She didn’t drink very often and she didn’t drink very much, but every now and again, Heather forgot that she was a lightweight and she always ended up doing something stupid, then emptying the contents of her stomach. Every time.
I finished my coffee and then opened a drawer quietly, moving aside an old but treasured photo of a sleeping Heather and took out my camera. I dropped down onto the heath from the camper and spent a few hours in the weak sunshine, never straying far from her in case she woke up. When I returned to the camper, I made more coffee and settled into my seat again with a battered old copy of Schindler’s Ark and a cassette recorder, pressed the red ‘record’ button and read quietly but clearly into the machine until late in the afternoon, stopping to make myself some more toast and scrambled eggs for lunch.
She slept on. I’d seen her asleep before, of course I had, we’d been friends and next-door-neighbours since we were babies. I loved to watch her face when she was asleep. She was so pretty, but she wasn’t one of those girls who was aware of their beauty. If she saw you looking at her, really paying her attention, she’d make a face or turn away. The best time to look at and to photograph Heather was when she didn’t know you were looking. I drank in my fill now - her sweet face, her soft skin, the freckles on her nose we’d once tried to rub off with sandpaper, her hair all messed up (when was it not?), her mouth, her lips I’d once kissed, in an inexplicable, never-to-be-repeated moment of lust mixed with sorrow, that had thankfully not ruined our friendship but rather strengthened it, allowed us to let go of each other and spend some much-needed time apart. That Kiss had been two summers ago. No harm done. Just friends, trying out stuff. All in the past.
When the light began to fade again, I drove slowly into town, past the sign that read ‘Welcome to Hell’.
The Wanderers will be available soon.
FJ Campbell was born in the twentieth century in a seaside town and has moved around a lot, in Britain and Europe.