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|Down London Road(On Dublin Street #2)(5) by Samantha Young|
Most days I coped with the hand that Cole and I had been dealt. Today I felt emotional. I felt further than ever from the peace and security I strove to find. Perhaps it was the weariness causing my blood to heat.
Deciding it was time to catch some sleep, I strolled quietly down to the end of the hall, ignored the drunken snoring from my mum’s room, and slipped silently behind my door, closing the world out. I had the smallest room in the flat. Inside it was a single bed, a wardrobe – most of my clothes, including my eBay pile, shared space with Cole’s in the wardrobes in his bedroom – and a couple of overflowing bookshelves. My collection ranged from paranormal romances to nonfiction history books. I would read anything. Absolutely anything. I loved being transported somewhere else, even back in time.
I stripped out of the Dolce & Gabbana and put it into my dry-cleaning bag. Only time would tell if I got to keep it or not. The flat was freezing, so I hurried into my warm pyjamas and dived under the covers.
After such a long day, I thought I’d fall asleep instantly. But I didn’t.
I found myself staring up at the ceiling, playing Cam’s words over and over inside my head. I’d thought I was used to people thinking I was worthless, but his attitude for some reason stuck in my side like a knife. And yet there was no one else to blame but myself.
I chose this path.
I turned on my side, pulling the duvet up to my chin. I didn’t think I was unhappy.
I didn’t know if I was happy, though.
I supposed it didn’t matter as long as the end result was that Cole was happy. Our mum was pretty rubbish at being a mum – and fourteen years ago I’d promised myself to watch out for my baby brother. As long as he grew up with self-worth and I had the means to get him whatever he needed to start out right in life, that was all that mattered.
Staring at the electricity bill in frustration, I decided I’d have to look at it again when I wasn’t so tired. I’d had a few hours of sleep before I had to get up for Cole in the morning, which I always did because I liked to see him off to school. And then I’d come home and spent the day cleaning the flat, rousing Mum long enough to help her get washed and dressed, and then I’d left her watching some daft talk show while I went off to do the food shopping.
I squinted at the electricity bill. I doubted I’d be able to figure it out; I could never understand how the tariffs worked. However they were calculated, they put me out of pocket. ‘Assholey scumsuckers,’ I hissed, throwing the bill on the coffee table and ignoring the startled look from Cole, who was still wearing his school uniform. Ever since he got old enough to start emulating me, I’d watched my language around him. I hated slipping up.
If I pretended I hadn’t said it, then maybe he would too.
I flopped back on the couch and closed my eyes against the light in hopes that it would ease the headache behind my eyes.
I heard Cole shuffling around, followed by the sound of a drawer being opened seconds before something small landed on my chest. I peeled my eyes open and glanced down at the tiny missile.
I felt my mouth quirk up at the corner and looked up at Cole from under my lashes as he stared down at me. ‘I don’t need the gum any more.’
Cole gave me the grunt and shrug that were becoming all too familiar this year. ‘You swore a lot when you were trying to quit smoking.’
I arched an eyebrow. ‘I quit over three months ago.’
He gave me that damn shrug again. ‘Just saying.’
I didn’t need a cigarette. I needed sleep. Okay, sometimes I really wanted a cigarette. The desperation had finally gone – that jittery rawness inside my body where every nerve ending felt like it was screaming at me for a cigarette. I swear I could have ripped someone’s face off for a cigarette during those first few weeks after quitting. I’d like to say that I was motivated to quit smoking because it was the right thing to do. But no. I’d seen some of my friends attempt to quit and had not fancied going through the ordeal of it. I had enough going on in my life without adding squashing an addiction to the list. No, I quit smoking for the one thing in the whole world that meant anything to me, and right now he was folding his tall body back on to the floor, where his own comic book drawings were scattered in front of the television.
Cole had asked me to quit years ago when he first found out that cigarettes ‘were bad’. I hadn’t done it then because he’d never really pursued the issue, being that he was seven years old and more interested in Iron Man than in my bad habits.
Then a few months ago his health class was shown a pretty disgusting video of the damage smoking did to the lungs and the consequences … such as lung cancer. Now, Cole is a smart kid. It’s not like he didn’t know that smoking killed. Since every cigarette packet had a bold print label over it that said SMOKING KILLS, I’d be pretty worried if he hadn’t known.
However, I don’t think it had occurred to him until then that smoking could kill me. He came home in a belligerent mood and flushed all my cigs. I’d never seen him react so strongly to anything before – his face almost purple with emotion, his eyes blazing. He demanded that I quit. He didn’t have to say anything else – it was written all over his face.
I don’t want you to die, Jo. I can’t lose you.
So I quit.
I got the patches and the gum and went through the horrendous withdrawals. Now that I didn’t have to pay for the patches and gum, I was saving money, especially since the price of cigarettes just kept climbing. It seemed to be socially unacceptable to smoke anyway. Joss was absolutely ecstatic when I told her I was quitting, and I had to admit it was nice not having to put up with her wrinkling her nose at me every time I returned from break smelling like cigarette smoke. ‘I’m fine now,’ I assured Cole.
He kept sketching a page in the comic book he was creating. The kid was seriously talented. ‘What’s with the swearing, then?’
‘Price of electricity has gone up.’
Cole snorted. ‘What hasn’t gone up?’
Well, he would know. He’d been watching the news avidly since he was four. ‘True.’
‘Should you not be getting ready for work?’
I grunted. ‘Aye, okay, Dad.’
I was awarded another shrug before he bent over his sketch pad again, the signal that he was preparing to tune me out. His strawberry blond hair slid over his forehead and I fought the urge to brush it back. His hair was getting too long, but he wouldn’t let me take him to the barber’s to get it cut.
‘You done your homework?’
I eyed the clock on the mantelpiece of our fireplace. Cole was right. It was time to get ready for my shift at Club 39. Joss was on shift with me tonight, so it wouldn’t be too bad. There were perks to working with your best friend. ‘You’re right, I’d better –’
Crash! ‘Aw, f**k!’
The crash and the curse word lit up the apartment and I thanked God that our neighbour downstairs had moved out and that the flat below was empty. I dreaded the day a new tenant moved in. ‘Jooooo!’ she shrieked helplessly. ‘Johannaaaaa!’
Cole stared at me, defiance burning in his eyes despite the tight pain in his boyish features. ‘Just leave her, Jo.’
I shook my head, my stomach churning. ‘Let me get her settled so you don’t have to worry about her tonight.’
‘I’m coming!’ I yelled and threw my shoulders back, bracing myself to deal with her.
I threw open her door, not surprised to find my mum on the floor beside her bed, gripping the sheets as she tried to pull herself up. A bottle of gin had smashed across her bedside table, and pieces of glass had fallen to the floor beside her. I saw her hand drop towards the glass and I rushed at her, jerking her arm roughly. ‘Don’t,’ I told her softly. ‘Glass.’
‘I fell, Jo,’ she whimpered.
I nodded and leaned down to put my hands under her armpits. Hauling her skinny body on to the bed, I pulled her legs up and slid them under the duvet. ‘Let me clean this up.’
‘I need more, Jo.’
I sighed and hung my head. My mother, Fiona, was a severe alcoholic. She had always liked a drink. When I was younger it hadn’t been as bad as it was now. For the first two years after we moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh, Mum managed to hold on to her job with a large private cleaning company. Her drinking had worsened when Uncle Mick left, but when her back problems started and she was diagnosed with a herniated disc, the drinking became excessive. She quit her job and went on disability allowance. I was fifteen years old. I couldn’t get a job until I turned sixteen, so for a year our lives were pretty much shit as we lived off welfare and the little savings that Mum had put away. Mum was supposed to keep active – to at least walk around – because of her bad back. But she only made the pain worse as she became more of a hermit, vacillating between long periods of bedridden drinking and short bursts of angry, drunken stupors in front of the television. I dropped out of school at sixteen and got a job as a receptionist in a hair salon. I worked crazy hours to try to make ends meet. On the plus side, I’d never had really close friends at high school but I made some good friends at the salon. After reading some vague article about chronic fatigue syndrome, I began to make excuses for my schedule – always having to be at home to look after Cole – by telling people my mum had chronic fatigue syndrome. Since I knew very little about the complicated condition, I pretended to find it too upsetting to really talk about. It felt, however, much less shameful than the truth.
I looked up from under my lashes, the resentment in my gaze burning through the woman on the bed and not even causing her to flinch. Mum had once been a stunning woman. I got my height, trim figure and colouring from her. But now, with her thinning hair and bad skin, my forty-one-year-old mum looked closer to sixty.
‘You’ve got no gin left.’