Rachel hovers just outside the circle. “My brother said … I mean, says it’s the real shit.” She tries to sound convincing, authoritative: “And he knows his stuff.” She’s conscious of a wobble in her voice, but hopes the other girls won’t notice.
There’s a pause. Everyone looks at Aly, whose eyes are narrowed on Rachel, sussing things out.
“Okay,” says Aly, holding out her hand. “Everyone knows your bro knows his stuff. His name’s cool round here” – unlike, presumably, Rachel’s – “so yeah, hand it over and we’ll try it.”
Rachel glances around. “Here? In the … park?”
Aly stares at Rachel as if she’s stupid. “Yeah. Here. In the park. In the open.”
“Okay,” says Rachel, her voice wobbling even more. She injects confidence into it, trying to sound like Aly: “You’re on.” She takes the sachet out of her blazer pocket, and places it into Aly’s outstretched hand. Aly’s fingers close over it.
Aly looks around, and then behind her, where there’s a hedge and an orange sign: NO ALCOHOL. FINE £150. BY ORDER OF LEICESTERSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL. “We’re in the perfect place,” says Aly to the group, motioning for them to sit down. “We’ll sit here, under this sign. It’s not like we’re drinking alcohol. Besides which, if we do get done, my old man’ll pay for us all. It’s his fucking job.”
Four girls sit on the cool grass. Aly looks up at Rachel, who’s still standing. “Sit down, for fuck’s sake,” Aly says. “You’re annoying me up there. Blocking out my sun. Suze, Beck: make room for Rach.”
Rachel tries not to beam, just nods, and takes her place between Suze and Beck.
Aly’s already hunched over, working on the spliff. She’s taken out a Maths textbook from her bag, and has carefully spread out what she needs on top of it: two Rizlas, filter, lighter, tobacco, and a bit of what Rachel has given her. Rachel watches her work – they all do, quiet now.
Aly carefully places the roach at one end of the Rizlas, then spreads out the tobacco. Next, she takes the stuff Rachel brought, and almost sprinkles it – with a delicacy Rachel wouldn’t have thought possible of her – over the tobacco. Then she starts rolling. Finally, she licks the spliff closed, twists the end, and holds it up, proudly. Behind her, Rachel hears a passerby with a dog mutter something, and carry on walking.
“Behold, like, the master’s work,” declares Aly, grandly. Suze and Beck giggle. Kelly, on the opposite side of the circle to Rachel, claps. Rachel smiles half-heartedly, thinking how quickly, effortlessly, almost balletically her brother used to roll a spliff in comparison. She suppresses the thought – which is in danger of ruining her mood – and joins in with Kelly’s clapping. “Now,” says Aly, sparking up, “we shall sample our new friend’s offering.”
Rachel’s smile is genuine now: she looks down at the grass in front, trying not to go red at the word “friend,” trying not to betray herself.
Aly has noticed, though: “Mate, you haven’t even fucking tried it yet, and you’re already looking stoned. We’re going to have to work on you – I can see that. Not cool. Get a grip.”
Rachel nods, and Aly takes a big drag on the spliff. She holds it for a few seconds, then coolly exhales. She doesn’t cough – just clears her throat a bit.
Suddenly, she’s shouting: “What you fucking staring at, mong? Fuck off.” For a horrible moment, Rachel thinks she’s the one being shouted at. But swivelling round, she sees a red-faced boy on a bicycle cycling away. “Twat!” Aly shouts after him. She takes another drag of the spliff, and passes it to Kelly on her left.
Kelly does her best not to cough: “Wow,” she says, after a couple of drags: “Just wow. Good one, Rach … and yeah, of course, Aly.”
Next up is Suze. She does cough, and Aly grins at her: “Mong,” she says. Suze scowls, but two or three drags smooth out the scowl, and she lies back on the grass giggling. She holds up the spliff for Rachel to take.
Rachel takes it. It’s gone out, so she reaches for Aly’s lighter with her free hand. One of Aly’s Doc Martens crushes her hand on the ground. Rachel yelps.
“That’s mine,” says Aly. “Use your own. I’m not that stoned yet.”
“Okay,” says Rachel. She prises her hand from under Aly’s boot and reaches into her rucksack. Somewhere at the bottom is one of her brother’s lighters. Aly stares at her whilst she rummages through exercise books, papers, old makeup, hairbands, pens.
“Fucking get on with it,” says Aly.
Rachel goes red again, thinks she’ll never find the lighter – until, finally, she touches something metallic, a tiny grooved wheel. She fishes it out and – on second try – manages to relight the spliff. She takes two drags, doesn’t cough and passes it on.
“Smoked like a fucking pro,” says Aly, arching an eyebrow. “Impressive for a mong.”
Rachel squints at Aly – the sun is almost directly above her – and then lowers her gaze to the grass again. “I’ve had a bit of practice,” she says. She doesn’t add: probably more than any of them.
Beck, meanwhile, has been struck down by a hacking cough. She’s taken in too much at once. She’s coughing so loudly she’s attracting attention from a few people across the park. Aly kicks out at her. “Shut the fuck up, you stupid fuck.” Even Aly’s bravado has its limits, Rachel realises with a clarity lent to her by the spliff: even Aly, openly smoking weed in a public place, doesn’t want attention from the wrong people. “Shut the fuck up,” Aly says again. Beck gets up, leaves the circle, and runs to throw up in the bushes.
“What a mong,” says Aly to Rachel, smirking, “two puffs and she’s out.”
When Beck – pale and out of breath – re-emerges from the bushes, Aly grins at her: “God, you stink, Beck. Got vom on your skirt. Fucking disgrace – can’t even handle a bit of this shit. You need to learn from pros like me and Rach here.” Rachel smiles at the grass again – until Beck, rejoining the circle, accidentally kicks her knee while sitting back down. Rachel flinches, but doesn’t say anything, just rubs the place where the tights are now torn.
Aly has been smoking all the while, ignoring Kelly’s jealous stare, which says quite clearly: pass it on, pass it on, pass it on – although she doesn’t quite dare to say it out loud. The spliff is almost finished. Aly holds up the remains in front of her, admiringly. “Well done, Rach. This was good. Very good.” She puts on a posh voice, like a connoisseur appraising a cake or wine on TV: “Yes, your brother’s reputation is well-deserved. An excellent vintage, my dear. Your brother certainly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the real shit. You must be very proud. And you must introduce us one day, Rach, dear. I hear on the grapevine he also possesses a mighty fine c …”
Aly suddenly stops talking, and looks up, out of the circle. Rachel follows her gaze, swivels round. Everyone does.
Standing behind Suze, hands in his armpits, wearing a Ushanka hat, dirty brown fleece and combats, is a young guy – unshaven, unwashed, smelling of mulch, dead leaves.
“What the fuck you looking at?” asks Aly, back to her usual voice.
“Is that a spliff?” asks the guy.
“Who wants to know?” asks Aly.
“Me,” says the guy. “I’m … call me Jules.”
“I’m not going to call you anything, creep.”
“I just wondered …”
“What did you wonder?” asks Aly. “Can’t you see we’re fucking busy?”
“I just wondered if …”
“I wondered …”
“You just wondered if you could have a drag? Is that what you’re trying to say?”
The guy nods. He’s sweating, staring down at the smouldering end of the spliff as if mesmerised, in a trance.
Rachel thinks Aly is going to tell him to fuck off. In fact, everyone thinks she is going to tell him to fuck off – even the guy himself, who has shaken himself out of his trance, and is starting to turn away.
But she doesn’t tell him to fuck off. Instead, she says slowly: “Okay. There’s not much left. But okay, yeah, go on then, Jules. You can have a puff.”
She stands up. The whole circle of girls stands up with her, as if she’s a queen, or mistress of the house.
Aly steps across the circle, holding out the spliff, with the roach pointing towards the guy’s mouth. He licks his lips. Suze sidesteps out of the way.
Aly is now face to face with the guy. They’re almost the same height. If anything, she’s slightly taller than him, and broader in the shoulders.
She places the roach between his lips. He takes a deep drag – it’s still lit – holds it in, closes his eyes, and exhales. For a moment, everything is still.
“Like it?” asks Aly, taking the spliff out of his lips, and letting it fall. She licks her lips. The two of them are close enough to kiss.
“Lovely,” says the guy. “Best thing I’ve had for days. Fucking bliss.”
“Good,” says Aly. “Perhaps you’ll like this too.”
And she head-butts him, hard, on the bridge of his nose.
There’s a crack. He yelps, falls backwards, clutching his face with both hands. “What the fuck?”
“Fucking mong,” she says, half-laughing, half-dazed herself. “You stink. I’ll need a shower in bleach when I get home.” She kicks one of his knees with her Doc Martens. “At least I’ve got a shower to go home to.” She rubs her forehead, staggers a bit. Kelly, Suze and Beck run to hold her up. “Twat, you hurt my head.”
Suze giggles, still stoned. Kelly spits at the guy. Blood is seeping between his fingers, down his arms, onto the ground. He’s bent double, crying, trying to back away. “What the … ?”
“Fucking mong,” says Aly again. “Fuck off back to nowhere.” She turns away from him, still reeling. “Rach, make yourself useful, for fuck’s sake. Get my phone out my bag. Ring my dad. Tell him to come and get me. Tell him some fucking homeless mong hit me.”
Rachel steps over to Aly’s bag, and starts fishing around for her mobile. “Yeah, Rach,” says Aly loudly, “tell my dad to come to the park in his Land Rover Discovery.” She turns to face the retreating guy one more time, pulling herself up straight: “Get that, mong? – my dad’s Land Rover Discovery. He’ll fucking run you over on the way home. Home – hear that? – we’ve got one, y’know: six fuck-off bedrooms and a Jacuzzi.” She tries to laugh, then flips him the bird: “Now you can fucking do one, Jules.”
The guy, still clutching his broken nose, whimpering, turns and stumbles away. Across the park, Rachel sees him veer off, as one of the wardens – who, like a number of people, has been watching from a distance – tries to catch him. The guy scrambles over a wall and is gone. The warden gives up, and starts striding towards the girls.
“You know what to say, don’t you?” asks Aly. All the girls in the circle nod, except for Rachel, who’s still hunting for Aly’s mobile in her bag. Aly glowers at her. “You know what to say, don’t you, Rachel?” Head bowed, Rachel nods – as if she were being told off by a teacher.
She goes back to searching for Aly’s mobile, finds it, and starts scrolling down contacts for ‘Dad’ or ‘Home.’ Aly steps over, and snatches the phone off her. “Yeah, well, we’ll leave my dad out of it after all. He’s probably, like, busy at work or some shit. Doesn’t want to be bothered with bollocks like this.”
She snaps the mobile shut. They all pick up their bags, and traipse back to college. Lunch break is over.
* * *
At the end of the day, Rachel runs all the way home. She bursts into the house, and takes the stairs in twos, up to her brother’s room. No-one’s there, of course, to ask her what the hell she’s doing, to tell her to get the fuck out. She pulls out the drawers of his desk, lifts up the mattress, stands on a chair to feel the top of the wardrobe, and eventually finds what she’s looking for. She shoves it in her blazer pocket, and runs back down the stairs, and out of the house again, slamming the door behind her.
Then she runs towards town – until, out of breath, she has to slow to a brisk walk. She walks through the park, and round and round the shops, not going into any. She walks round the pedestrianised market square, up and down side streets, alleyways, across carparks. She doubles back, peering into disused units in the shopping centre. She even circles the public toilets.
Eventually, she finds him, his legs in a sleeping bag, in the doorway of what was once a bookshop.
“Hello, Jules,” she says.
The guy shrinks from her, wide eyed. “Go away,” he hisses, “please.”
She squats down, so she’s on his level. “No, I won’t.”
From here, she can see his face is a mess: there’s dried blood on his stubble, and under his nostrils, and a blue and greenish bruise spread out, like a butterfly, round his nose. The nose itself is swollen, and doesn’t look straight. He sees her looking at it, and his hand jerks up to cover his face.
“Get away from me,” he says.
“No,” she says. “I want you to have this.” She fishes into her blazer pocket, and hands him one of her brother’s sachets. “It’s his last one.”
The guy looks down at it, and then at her. “Whose?”
“Won’t he miss it? I don’t want another maniac coming after me.”
“No, he won’t miss it.”
“Because he’s … he’s gone.”
“Where? Where’s he gone?” The guy seems stuck in a cycle of questions that he can’t stop asking – stupidly, automatically – about someone he doesn’t know from Adam.
“I don’t know. He left us a couple of weeks ago. Just walked out. Didn’t even leave a note or anything. My mum was doing his head in. And now, he’s probably … well, he might be outside, you know, like you.” She sits down next to the guy, and looks at the ground. “I miss him, you know.” She’s crying. The guy doesn’t know what to say or do. In the end, it’s Rachel who takes his filthy hand and holds it for a minute.
She sniffs, breathes in, lets the sobs subside: “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I can’t say it to him, so I’m saying it to you instead. I’m sorry.”
Still in pain, still furious, still dazed from earlier, the guy finds himself saying: “It wasn’t you. It was that other girl.” He looks down at his hand in hers, puzzled why he’s feeling sorry for her, and not the other way round: “You do realise,” he’s on the verge of saying, “that I’m the one who a dog pissed on this morning. I’m the one who’s only eaten a cold cheeseburger in three days. I’m the one who just got fucking head-butted.” But he doesn’t say these things – and squeezes her hand instead.
“It was me,” she says.
“It wasn’t – it was your mate.”
“No, I mean, it was me who made him go. It was me who told him to fuck off and die the night before … the night before he actually did fuck off. Mum was out on the piss, and he called me upstairs and said he wanted to hang out with me with a bong, and I said I had to do my homework – and suddenly he was dead angry and said I was a sad loser who didn’t know how to chill, didn’t have any friends. He said I was like everyone round here. He said he was sick of it, sick of everyone and everything. He said everyone could go and fuck themselves – including me. He shoved me out of his bedroom. So I told him if he felt like that he might as well fuck off too – fuck off and die.”
She cries a bit more, then takes her hand away from his, wipes her nose on her sleeve and stands up. “Anyway, have it,” she says, nodding at the sachet. “A present to say sorry.” She pauses, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. “And perhaps,” she says, “you won’t mind if I say hello to you if I ever see you around.”
“I won’t mind,” he says, honestly.
She takes a deep breath, and turns away from him.
And there is Aly, right in front, staring wide-eyed at them both.
For a moment – a moment which replays the same stillness from earlier, just before Aly head-butted Jules – Rachel thinks Aly is going to head-butt her too. But she doesn’t flinch, doesn’t back away. Part of her thinks she deserves it.
Aly doesn’t head-butt her. Her mouth opens and shuts a couple of times, and she mumbles something – something like: “I thought … I thought …” A strange expression, like a bruise, like another ghostly self, seems to overlay her face – and Rachel wonders if she too is lonely.
But then a burly man in a suit, who’s standing a few yards behind, yells at her: something about getting her arse in gear, something about his being late for the shift, something about his daughter being a stupid bitch for wasting his time, hanging out with losers.
The ghost passes from Aly’s face as quickly as it came, and her expression hardens. She looks Rachel up and down, turns up the side of her nose, swivels on her heels and strides away.
Rachel knows Aly will never talk to her again. She also knows she doesn’t care.
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He is co-editor with Karen Stevens of the anthology High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories (Valley, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in the UK. His website is http://www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk and he tweets @crystalclearjt
Image via Pixabay