(McKay/Sioux, The Scream: 1978)
‘Careful knobjockey, can’t you see that box says FRAGILE?!’
Her beautiful insult punctures the moment of silence between the end of London Calling and beginning of Brand New Cadillac. She thinks I can’t hear. But I definitely just heard her say knobjockey and so now I’m pressing pause. Even The Clash can’t compete with that.
I’m sitting in the shade of the sycamore tree that grows in our new front garden. Mum stands next to me, a can of Diet Coke in her hands, muttering with disgust. Peering up from my crappy generic mp3 player, I watch her scrutinising the poor red-faced removal men as they struggle with the million and one boxes that contain all our worldly possessions.
‘Not there, you… you utter…’
She’s searching for the right put-down. Wank-stain. Shithead. Fuckwit. Go on, I urge, trying to reach her telepathically. Say fuckwit. You know you want to. Fuckwit. Fuckwit. Fuckwit…
Even she looks disappointed in herself.
I snigger quietly, but evidently not quietly enough.
Mum turns so she’s in front of me, looking down at me, jutting out her hip, blocking out the sun. ‘Comfortable down there? Fancy a cushion?’
I push my Skullcandy headphones down around my neck. ‘How about a foot rub?’
She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t look away. Deadlock. I raise my legs and wave my Converse at her. Nothing. She just glares. She has no sense of humour these days. She used to think I was funny, used to say if my career as a world famous singer-songwriter didn’t work out, I should be a stand-up comedian. But now- not even a flicker of a smile. Her forehead is all wrinkled up and she looks at me like I’m some kind of alien species that she just happened to find in a bush fifteen years ago.
‘That’s enough skiving for you.’ She crushes the can in her palm with a terrifying finality and starts walking towards our new wheelie bin. ‘There’s a few boxes of yours over by the car. You can take them up to your room.’
‘I just sat down Mum…’
Her head swivels round like something out of The Exorcist and the look on her face tells me arguing is futile so sighing as loudly as I dare, I shove my mp3 player back into my pocket and push myself up off the grass.
I hate moving house. Always have. Always will.
Swoosh swoosh swoosh. I drag my feet as I make my way to the dark red saloon car Mum decided was more in keeping with her new lifestyle than our old silver Golf. Swoosh swoosh swoosh. To be honest, I preferred the Golf. But of course she didn’t ask me for my opinion. About the car or moving house or anything. Swoosh swoosh swoosh.
‘Danielle, will you please pick up your feet? Stop scuffing up your trainers.’
They’re not trainers Mother. They’re Converse hi-tops. And since I had to save up for an absolute age and buy them for myself, I think I have every right to scuff them if I want to.
But do I say any of this out loud?
Yeah right, I’m not that dumb.
Instead, I bend down to pick up one of the boxes of my stuff, helpfully marked DANIELLE CLOTHES. My hair falls in front of my face, but I don’t have a spare hand to brush it away. It tickles my nose and I can’t see a thing behind the mousy blonde curtain. Mum’s always telling me to tie my hair back, that I shouldn’t hide behind it. That my face has a refined bone structure a model would be proud of. That if only I would smile more… Blah blah blah-dee blah.
As I struggle to lift the box off the floor, I flick my head back and my hair moves enough for me to see one of the overall-clad removal men heading towards me, effortlessly carrying a huge box marked OFFICE.
‘You alright there, kid?’
‘Mmm hmm,’ I manage as I attempt to stand up straight, trying to act like the box weighs nothing. I wish it weighed nothing. My arms feel like they’re about to be ripped out the sockets.
‘Your Mum’s a bit of a handful, eh?’ His eyes become wary almost as soon as he’s said it, like he’s worried I’m gonna be just like her. Like if he so much as breathes out of place, I’m gonna tear his head off and jump down his throat.
I laugh and nod, letting the box drop back onto the gravel, losing all pretence of possessing Marvel hero super-strength. Call me selfish, but it’s actually a relief to know I’m not the only one suffering from her acid-comments and dagger-looks today. A problem shared or whatever.
‘I’ll give you a hand with those in a minute,’ he says quietly as he moves past me, like we’re part of some conspiracy against the evil dictator that is my Mum.
As I shake out the pain in my arms, I can see her down by the road, talking to some guy leaning against a dark blue car. I have absolutely no clue who the hell he is, but he’s definitely what I’d call deliciously dishevelled, all stubble and long-ish hair. I guess he’d be quite hot if he wasn’t old, like mid-thirties at least. Even from here I can see this look on his face as he stares at the house, like he’s scared it’s gonna slide down the hill and squish him or something.
With all that intense, stary-ness, I can’t help but follow his gaze. I mean, this house is totally weird, like someone took a bunch of ideas that looked good on other houses and shoved them all together. From one side, it looks like the others on this street- Edwardian, Mum says cos apparently she knows about this stuff now? Then there’s this balcony attached to what’s gonna be Mum’s room. I dunno if she thinks she’s gonna live out some kind of romantic Shakespearean fantasy. Oh Romeo, Romeo… Ugh, as if.
But of all its weirdness, I’m drawn to the large Rapunzel tower on the corner, which gives the house its name: Tower House. Imaginative, I know. It’s where my new bedroom is and seriously something else, with its red slated roof and unusually large windows. Windows that always seem to look like someone is walking past.
Mum calls it eclectic. I call it schizo.
Even from here, I can hear Mum giggling like some kind of deranged fangirl and I look back to see her resting her hand on Blue Car Guy’s arm. I don’t think he’s even noticed, he’s still proper fixating on the house. But trust Mum to start trying to ingratiate herself before we’re even properly moved in. Lame as…
It’s like she senses my distain or maybe she’s got some inbuilt detector that tells her when I’m standing still for more than a nanosecond cos there she goes, fixing me with her full-on Medusa death stare. I summon all my strength and haul the box up onto my hip, turning to follow the path to the house.
As I manoeuvre my way through the front door, the change in temperature is immediate, like walking into a fridge. Outside it’s bright and warm, unusually so for the first day of September, like the summer is making one last stand before bowing out to Autumn. But inside Tower House, it’s all dark and gloomy, like the sun has never ever reached this far. I shiver, goosebumps immediately forming on my arms. The sweat that had begun to trickle down my neck feels cold now.
I pause in the hallway to adjust the box. Who knew clothes were so heavy? My ears prick up hopefully at the sound of footsteps crunching on the path outside. If it’s that Nice Removal Man, maybe I can get him to carry this box upstairs. I dunno if I can make it without causing some kind of major internal injury.
‘Danielle, will you please stop loitering? Just do as I asked and take your stuff up to your room.’
I bite my tongue. Saying anything just makes Mum worse when she’s like this. I let her push past me on her way to the kitchen.
‘Why do I hire these total muppets?’ she grumbles, quite possibly loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Men are bloody useless.’
This is the reason, in the last ten years, we’ve worked our way through nearly every removal company, every plumber, every decorator in the United Kingdom.
I hoist the box further up onto my hip and tackle the stairs to my room. It’s hard work, but I’m still freezing. I swear, it’s like the cold in this house gets inside your bones, but I can just imagine Mum’s reaction if I asked her to turn on the central heating in September. I’m not particularly in the mood for a half hour lecture on how we’re not made of money and that’s why jumpers were invented. I make my way down the landing, towards the tower and my new bedroom.
My new bedroom.
I should be excited, right?
I kick the door open and dump my stuff on the floor. Standing in the doorway, my life in a box at my feet, I take it all in. It’s a big room, that’s why I chose it. Way bigger than my old box room in the flat. Hexagonal in shape with a huge bay window, letting in the sunshine. At the moment, it’s painted off-white with a cream carpet and cream curtains; so pure and clean. Mum calls it neutral. I call it dulls-ville.
It kinda reminds me of a blank page in a book, the walls are that exact shade. I can’t wait to make my mark on it, to make it mine.
Put my posters up on the walls…
My electric guitar on its stand over there in the corner…
My books, my CDs, my desk under the window…
With everything in its place, I’m sure it’ll start to feel like mine. But right now, it has all the atmosphere of a hotel room. No, it’s more than that, worse even. Walking in here, I get the unsettling sensation of intruding on someone else’s privacy, like the feeling you get when you walk in on an argument. Unwelcome.
I shove the box towards the dark wood framed bed that’s been left in the house. Partially-furnished Mum told me when she announced our latest move, like that’s a positive. But anyway, the bed. Mum says it’ll have to do until we get me a new one of my own. I’m doubtful I’m even gonna fit on it, let alone get a decent night’s sleep. And who knows who slept in here before, shedding tiny particles of skin, bodily fluids or even, shudder, lice which now reside in the mattress on the bed I’m expected to sleep in. Someone could’ve died on it for all we know. I could catch scabies and it’d be all her fault. Not that she’d care.
She’s got a new bed. King size. Of course.
All this moving house and trying not to incur Mum’s wrath is exhausting. I perch on the very edge of the dark wooden frame, trying to avoid touching the gnarly old mattress. Ugh, I can almost feel my skin crawling. I rub my arms, still covered with goosebumps, still aching from carrying that stupid box.
There’s a second door beckoning at me from the far side of the room. Mum says it’s a large cupboard space that can easily be turned into a walk-in wardrobe, as if that’s something I lie awake at night fantasising about. And that’s only if we can get the thing open. There’s no handle, just a hole remains where the knob should be, and someone’s done a pretty good job of jamming the mechanism. It’s been painted over the same off-white as the walls, but the paint’s starting to peel away at the bottom, revealing red paint underneath. It almost looks like the paint has been scratched away.
Splinters of paint. Slicing into the skin beneath your nails. As you desperately claw at the wood, trying to hold on…
I’m up off the bed and halfway across the room before I’m even aware of giving my legs the direction to move. My arm reaches out to touch the door. The paint is cracked and cool beneath my fingertips which trace gentle patterns amongst the streaks on the woodwork. I close my eyes and breathe in deeply, filling my lungs with cold, dusty air, allowing the world outside, with its boxes, Nice Removal Man, Blue Car Guy and moody nightmare of a mother, to just fall away…
This is my room. My sanctuary. Mine.
‘Mine,’ I whisper, testing the word out with my tongue.
That was the unmistakable sound of a fist against the woodwork and I’m not sure if it came from my side of the door or behind it. All I know is, it wasn’t me.
‘It’s mine,’ I say, louder this time, although the slight waver in my voice kinda undermines any authority I was hoping to convey.
Nothing. Ok, so…
Delayed reaction, but definitely another response.
But just a coincidence. Right?
One last time.
‘This room is MINE!’
The response comes back, and with it a pain that is literally blinding, like an ice pick being driven through my skull, right behind my left eye socket.
All I can feel is agony and all I can see is white.
I dig my nails into the paint to stop myself crumpling to the floor.
Splinters of paint. Slicing into the skin beneath my nails.
Please, I beg the powers that be, whoever the hell is out there that might be listening, please, please, just make this stop.
I desperately claw at the wood, trying to hold on.
I think my brain is about to explode and dribble out of my ears. My mouth is swimming with saliva, like that awful moment just before you throw up. And the burning in my lungs lets me know in no uncertain terms that I’ve been holding my breath for way too long.
I gently draw in some air, not wanting to make it any worse.
But as my chest begins to rise and fall again with the cautious in and out of my breathing, the white behind my eyes starts to fade, taking some of the brain-liquifying pain with it.
And then, it’s like that moment you sometimes get during a storm, when the clouds part and you can see the sun. I see it. Just for a second. Through the door. Inside the closet. Amongst shoes and clothes that litter the small floor space. A floral canvas bag. I know what’s inside and it’s wonderful. Cans, foil packets and paper wrappers, shiny and bright like jewels. A secret stash. The fizz and the crunch, the sugar, the salt, the sheer joy of all those E numbers swimming through my veins.
And then I see her. Huddled, like an animal, cornered. Dark hair obscuring her face. Scratching something into the wall.
But then it’s gone. It’s done. It’s over. I tip my head back and yank my body away from the door. I look down at my trembling hands, at the dried paint jammed under my fingernails, and then stare at the door. Seriously, what the…? Weird is not the word. I am properly freaking out here. I take one step back, and then another. I keep going until I feel the squish of the landing carpet under my Converse.
I turn, trying to repress the urge to run.
It was just a migraine.
Not that I get migraines.
But that’s what it was. Right?
All that remains is a faint throbbing somewhere behind my eyes.
I walk down the hallway, casting glances over my shoulder as I go. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s someone stood in the doorway. Watching me. This place is totally creeping me out.
I stop to get my mp3 player out of my pocket, cos when everything around you is total chaos, music is always the answer. Whenever I feel rough, music is my medicine. The headphone cable is all tangled up, one of my ultimate pet hates. I start to untangle it, focussing all my attention on the task at hand. It feels good to pretend the last ten minutes never happened. If I pull this bit through here and straighten this bit out…
Something slams into my right side at full force, sending me sprawling backwards against the wall.
I manage to keep hold of my mp3, but the box that was in her hands seems to hang in mid-air before it plummets to the ground with the unmistakable sound of breaking glass.
Now I’m for it.
‘What are you doing just standing in the hallway?’ Mum doesn’t wait for me to answer, crouching down so she can inspect the damage.
I squint over her shoulder and catch the glisten of the shards of glass that used to make up our toothbrush holder and soap dish.
‘Oh great,’ she mutters. ‘As if this move wasn’t costing enough already, now I need to buy a new bathroom set as well.’
I stand, mutely, waiting for the abuse to be directed at me. Because this is exactly what I need after my cluster headache of doom. Because of course this is my fault. Because I was stood still for two seconds, not because she was hurtling around without looking where she was going.
‘No. YOU can buy a new bathroom set. It’ll get you out from under my feet; you’re not exactly proving to be very useful.’
Wow Mum, way to make your daughter feel wanted…
‘Go to that nice furnishing place in town,’ she continues, with a sigh.
Mum calls it nice. I call it expensive.
The place is total horrorshow, all chintz and faux vintage, and it’ll cost me most of the money I was saving for those clip-in pink hair streaks I saw in Blue Banana. And it’s not like the toothbrush holder wasn’t cheap and chipped around the rim anyway. And there was a huge crack running through the soap dish, which was probably picked up from some charity shop for 50p. But hey, it’s worth it if it gets me away from her… I mean, here.
‘The one opposite that tatty old record shop you’re so obsessed with,’ she adds just for clarification, as if there was any doubt which “nice furnishing place in town” she was talking about.
But maybe, while I’m there, I can pop into the “tatty old record shop”. Just for ten minutes. He’s probably not even working today.
‘And please don’t spend all afternoon mooning over that boyfriend of yours. I want you back at a reasonable hour.’
‘His name is Jay and he’s not my…’
‘…Boyfriend. So you keep saying. Just be back around 7 and I’ll order in some dinner.’
She’ll probably order Chinese again. I’m sick of Chinese. I could maybe force down some curry. Or pizza. Anything but Chinese. But I ain’t sticking around to argue. I take the stairs two at a time, grab my bag off the banister and I’m out the door before she can change her mind.
Practically skipping down the gravel path with the joy of my new-found freedom, I see Nice Removal Man by the van. I wave at him like a mega dork, but I’m too happy to care. He doesn’t laugh, or roll his eyes at my utter lameness. He looks… jealous. I would feel bad, but hey, at least he’s getting paid to put up with my Mum. I’m expected to do it for free…