When Jendella edits the opening paragraph, she notes that although it is not snappy enough, that she does like the "sensory details through sense of space."
"Dialogue would probably do the work that I was hoping writing in second person would"
"Accents give character but finding the balance between enough idiosyncracy to be realistic and caricature is a tightrope. More refinement needed."
Auntie Mercy’s nails click like knitting needles as they move through your sister’s hair. She's weaving Esther’s coils into a tight maze of cornrows. Auntie Mercy doesn’t talk as she works, she just chews methodically. Occasionally, she nudges Esther’s temple with two fingertips, reminding her to keep her head straight. Auntie Mercy never usually talks when she’s doing your hair, but you can tell in this silence she is angry.1
The air around her shimmers like the space above tarmac on a hot summer’s day, when everything looks like it will melt. Last summer, in the park there was a patch of floor that got so hot it got really soft and you had bits of black rubber stuck to the soles of your new trainers. Mum was screwing, but that will be nothing compared to what she’s going to do when she gets home tonight. Auntie Mercy says this is why you two can’t be left alone – she blames Mum really although she never says it. But in Mum's absence you’re in charge, so this is your fault.
You stare at the space where the TV had been. Somehow the bit of wall left behind seems lighter than the rest of the room, as if a spotlight is fixed and there is a plaque waiting to be erected underneath that says, “Here lay the TV that Mum got from BrightHouse for £6.89 a week, before Naomi opened the door to the bailiffs and they took it away.”
They’re not meant to come into the house if an adult is not there, Mum has drummed this into your head so many times, but most importantly you are not meant to open the door. For some reason you thought it might be Dean coming to knock for you; to take you out like he always says he will when you turn 16.
“Pretty girl like you shouldn’t be eating this shit,” he said to you yesterday, when you went to the chicken shop to get dinner for you and Esther. “I’ll take you somewhere nice, soon as you turn 16.”
He even kissed his fingers at you and you saw the glint of a silver tooth. It took all your concentration to walk home in a straight line, hoping your hips were swinging just enough to look like you knew what you were doing, but not like you knew too much.
Auntie Mercy’s nephew says that Dean is a real leng man, but you don’t know what that means. All you know is that he drives a car and has a pack of boys hanging on to his every word. He has a reputation big enough to sort out problems, so you’ve heard, so obviously you’ve decided to ask him to help you get back the TV.
When Auntie Mercy is done with Esther’s hair she taps the chair. It's your turn. You shake your head, scrambling for an excuse. You’re going to Jessica’s house, you’re meant to be watching a film tonight or something. Auntie Mercy’s eyes narrow and she squints until they’re two black beads in the middle of her head.
“An’ yuh mother's workin’ tonight? Who’s going to look after Esther?”
She can come with you, if she wants, you shrug, praying silently that Auntie Mercy thinks that this a terrible idea, but it’s Esther that pipes up.
“I don’t want to go to Jessica’s house!”
Auntie Mercy looks between the two of you. She doesn’t want you to go to Jessica’s house either, but if she dares say it you’ll remind her that she’s not your mother, she just checks in on you both after school and does your hair. It’s even the school holidays now, so you don’t know what she’s doing here. If you say it, it will come out mean, but it’s the truth.
You push off from the door frame that you’ve been leaning on, pulling yourself to your full height. You’re not that tall, but Auntie Mercy is tiny and it’s just a reminder of the fight she doesn’t want to have right now. She looks at you again and deflates.
“Alright. Esther will come with me. I’ll tex' yuh mother an' let her know.”3
You’re backing out the door now, trying not to let the relief show on your face. Auntie Mercy asks if you want dinner for later. You tell her you’ll eat at Jessica’s. You bound up the stairs two at a time and into the room you share with Esther.
Your hair is freshly washed because you were planning on getting your hair plaited before the whole bailiff thing. You squeeze moisturiser into your hands and push your fingers through its thickness. Then you squeeze more into your palm, adding enough to make your curls damp and heavy again. You draw a sharp line from the front of your head to the nape of your neck with a rat tail comb before laying a wobbling glob of Eco-styler gel on each side. The moisturiser turns it from transparent jelly to a slick creamy mess, but with the coarse bristles of a paddle brush you scrape each side into submission. Two cute little top knots that kind of look like horns. With more gel and an old toothbrush, you style your hairline into curling waves.
Esther calls up the stairs to tell you that they’re leaving. She calls you ‘May-mo-mi’. You shout back down to her and Auntie Mercy, and from behind the netting in your bedroom window you watch Auntie Mercy walk stiffly down the path, Esther skipping behind her. Auntie Mercy stops at the gate and turns, putting her hands on her hips and lifting her head to look up at your window. You step back, although you know she can’t see you. She looks like she’s debating whether to come back and get you. You can read the indecision in the way the skin around her nose is creased up and her lips are pushed into a twitching pout. She sighs. Visibly. Her shoulders drag her whole body down. She puts a hand out for Esther who gleefully takes it. You creep back closer to the window and watch them walk off towards Auntie Mercy’s discoloured little Corsa.
Esther has convinced Auntie Mercy to let her wear the clear plastic princess heels that are only meant for dressing up. In her hand, she grips the matching wand. While Auntie Mercy looks for her car keys, she’s waving the wand at other cars. The plastic streamers glimmer in the sunlight and for a second you wish you were her age and didn’t have these problems. Those stupid bailiffs and that stupid TV. You look across to the chicken shop. You can see Dean on the wall outside. His batch of boys is gathered around him, tearing the meat off chicken wings drowned in orange burger sauce. You need to move quick before he disappears, but you need to wait until Auntie Mercy’s car has left the street.
You also need to get dressed. You change your t-shirt to a white halterneck that Mum doesn’t know you own, because if she did she wouldn’t let you wear it. It’s nothing fancy, just a plain white top that’s pleated to make it look like you actually have cleavage, and it clings to your flat stomach like a second skin. Mum’s funny about you having your shoulders on show even though you don’t have much body to speak of. If she knew about this top it would go the way of that black denim miniskirt. She said it got lost at the launderette but you saw a glimpse of it between two kidney bean tins when you emptied the bin in the kitchen.
Anyway in two weeks you'll be 16 and then you can buy a strapless bra and stop having to tuck your straps into the cup like you’re doing now. You turn around in the mirror, making sure your lines are clean. That’s something you heard on a YouTube haul video: “The lines of a woman’s body should be smooth, no bumps, no lumps or pantylines showing!” You smooth your hands over your thighs and bum. No lumps, no pantylines.
Back at the window you can see the space where Auntie Mercy’s car was. Dean and that are still there in front of the chicken shop. You push your phone into your back pocket – this one lump is allowed – and loop the metal chain with the front door key around your neck. You’ve lost the house key so many times, Mum now makes you wear it on a chain. Luckily the chain is long enough so that key can sit in your bra and the rest of it can pass for a necklace.
You look in the mirror once more. You consider your face. Make up would finish the look, but you don’t own any, and the make up in your mother’s room is boring. No highlighter, no contour, just cakey discs of powder that she presses into her eye sockets when she says she wants to look alive. Maybe a rinsed brown lipstick if you’re lucky. No thanks.
You skip down the stairs, picking up the letter the bailiffs left along the way, folding it into a tight rectangle and sliding it down next to your phone. You open the front door and step out. The sun on your shoulders feels like freedom. You start walking towards Dean and them, but you can feel yourself already starting to walk funny. No one’s even looking at you but it feels like your legs might buckle or you’re about to trip over your own feet. Your knees are too close together.
As you approach the boys on the wall you run through what you’re going to say so that you don’t sound dumb when you open your mouth. You clear your throat quietly, not loud enough for anyone else to hear, but as you get closer, the boys peel back one by one, like a fist opening up. Now they are all watching you and you feel like you must be sweating. Dean’s smiling though.
You ask if you can speak to him for a second and a snigger passes around the group. He tells them to shut up because he can tell you’re nervous. He hops down off the wall and walks towards you with that slight lean, his hands tucked into the waistband of his trousers. He’s wearing a dark grey tracksuit and you can see underneath the cotton tracksuit bottoms he’s wearing another pair, but they’re black and have a thick white stripe down the side. You don’t know why boys do that, they must be so hot in summer.
Dean’s standing close to you, but you can hear his boys making dumb comments behind.
“Ay babes, when you’re done talking to D-Man, come chat to me, innit.”
Dean hisses in their direction and says you should both go for a walk. You follow him around the corner where his boys can’t see you and you feel your whole body relax. You're walking normally again.
“So what can I do for you, princess?”
You take the letter from your back pocket and unfold it, and then you start to explain what happened. You didn’t realise how upset you were about everything until it feels like you’re about to cry. Shit. Your hands are shaking and everything. This is proper embarrassing.
“Ay, ay, don’t cry,” Dean says and he looks scared. He’s looking around like he might get into trouble. “Come let’s go to my car.” He walks off and you follow.
Dean’s car is nice. He’s the only 20 year old with their own car that you know of and it’s black all over with tinted windows and black wheel trims. The only things that aren’t black is the silver VW logo and the headlights that are so shiny they look like they’re on even in the daytime. The car is proper low to the ground and it reminds you of a black jaguar stalking through the jungle. When he opens the passenger door for you, the seat is pushed back and itʼs like you’re looking into the jaguar's yawning mouth. Dean takes care of his car. It smells good inside and the leather you’re sitting on is soft and black and you feel calm again. He watches you relax into the reclined seat and smiles as you sigh.
“That’s better,” he says and you nod because it is.
He takes the letter from your hand and studies it carefully, mouthing the words as he reads.
He kisses his teeth and just says, “Fucking bailiffs, innit?”
You nod and explain again what happened, how they came earlier and you opened the door without checking who it was – you don’t tell him you thought it might be him though – and they pushed open the door and started talking too quickly and moving too fast and before you knew it, they were inside, packing up the TV. You didn’t know what to do so you came to him, can he help you get it back? 2
“I dunno, man,” he begins and because you had your whole heart hung on a yes, this response shakes free a tear that trails down your cheek. He sees it.
“Nah, don’t cry again, man.”
He reaches an arm around to dig inside the pocket on the back of his seat. He finds a crumpled McDonald’s napkin and hands it to you. You wipe the stiff tissue across your face quickly and now you’re glad you’re not wearing any makeup. It would all be on the back of this napkin and that would be proper embarrassing.
“So you want me to get this TV back for you, yeah?”
You nod and then he just says, “Aʼight.”
He drums his fingers against the steering wheel, then takes his phone out of his pocket quickly, like he’s remembered something.
“You’re gonna need to come with me though. You up for a ride?”
He’s smiling and his silver tooth is winking at you as his eyes play across your face. Something heavy flips over in your stomach and releases butterflies and you’re not sure if your mouth is going to work right now, so you just shrug.
“Your mum won’t mind?”
You shake your head. She’s at work, you croak. Then you clear your throat and say it again.
“Who was that leaving your yard with your little sister?”
It was your auntie, you begin, OK not your real auntie, your mum’s friend who comes around sometimes to check on you when your mum’s on lates.
He starts the car and the engine growls to life. He revs it a few times and you can see him out of the corner of his eye watching for your reaction. You put your seatbelt on.
You don’t know how to sit because the seat is tilted so far back. Dean tells you to turn the thing on the side to make it come upright but you spend a few minutes feeling around the chair, rubbing your hand up and down the side of the backrest like an idiot. He tells you to sit back. He reaches across you and twists some hidden thing down there, but as he does it the seat straightens up bit by bit and when he’s finished you’re basically chest to chest. You’re so close you feel the cool metal of his long silver chain brushing against your skin.
You laugh because it’s awkward.
“You smell good,” he says. “Like coconut.”
It’s the scent from your hair moisturiser but instead of telling him that you just say thanks. He revs the engine again, building it up from a purr to roar.
“Let me go tell these fuckers I’ll be back.”
The car pulls off from the kerb, he spins it around carelessly and heads back to the chicken shop. When his boys see the car approach they hop off the wall, walk up to the car and one of them reaches out for the passenger-side door. It’s locked. He looks confused. Dean clicks a button and the tinted glass rolls down. His boy sees you sitting there. More confusion.
“Oi, listen, I’ll be back, yeah?” Dean shouts across the seat.
“But we were meant to go handle that t'ing–” his friend begins, slightly annoyed, frowning.
“Later, man. I’ve got some other stuff to deal with.”
“What other stuff?” His boy is now looking at you with hungry eyes. He’s looking at you like you’re a fat chicken wing dipped in sauce.
“Fuck off,” Dean says, but he’s smirking.
“A’ight. Shout man when you’re done, though.”
They bump fists through the open window. The glass slides up and you’re off. The car cuts through the streets so easy, like a knife slicing through butter. At traffic lights pedestrians waiting to cross step back when the car pulls up.
“Bailiffs, yeah?” Dean says as he waits for the light to change. “Thatʼs some scumbag profession.”
You nod in agreement, then you ask him if he knows where you need to go to get the TV back.
“Er, yeah, man – yeah! I have a couple ideas,” he says as he swings the car around a corner. “Are you hungry?”
Kind of, you admit, but when he asks you what you want to eat your head goes blank. You tell him to choose. At another red light Dean catches you stroking the seat absentmindedly.
“You proper trust me, donʼt you?”
He says it softly, in a way that gives you goosebumps and makes you shiver. Heʼs been watching you for so long that the light turns green and he doesnʼt realise. Someone behind you presses on their horn.
“I ainʼt moving this car until you tell me you trust me.”
He looks serious and your whole body goes hot under his gaze. Yeah, you say, you trust him, and he smiles at you in that crooked way he does.