Lee Hamblin: [Lipstick]

I will deny it of course, but in truth, my focus is definitely on the back of his head, and not the treble twenty of the dartboard hanging on the back of the closet door. I nudge my heel up against the old shoebox acting as a makeshift oche, squeeze my eyes tight and draw back my arm. My brother Billy stands four feet in front, he’s already on a double eight finish; if he gets it, I’ll owe him a fiver I don’t have. Billy’s got a right nasty tongue on him, and he’s been at it again all day, winding me up with the verbals, putting me off my game. I fire my arrow. It just about sticks; dangles from the back of his skull. It sure hasn’t gone life-threatening deep. Billy gives a little yelp and shakes his head a couple of times like he’s a packhorse pestered by a bluebottle. He reaches for the back of his skull and the dart falls to the ground. I can’t see any blood, but to be honest, only the Jekyll half of me is relieved. My breath shortens, I start gasping, I need more air, and reckon by the way it’s pounding, my heart wants to leave my chest pronto. I drop the other two arrows and scram while I can. Billy is eleven months older than me, and whereas I’m all skin and bone – Billy’s bigger, and slower, both in body and mind, so I easily pass him before he’s figured it was no accident. I’m thinking I can get away with just a couple of licks if I keep him at bay for long enough for the dust to settle, so lock myself out on the small balcony of mum’s bedroom.

In one deep breath I hate him a little bit more, and in the next, I hate myself tenfold.

It’s cold outside; I’m wishing I’d grabbed my coat, or at least a hoodie. The cat’s litter tray in the corner gives off a super rank stench, and I think I’m going to retch. But I don’t. At least the incessant rain that’d kept us stuck inside all day has stopped. I wipe away the drops from the window and peer inside. The room’s a mess; the bed’s unmade. Clothes lie strewn about the floor like a crime scene you see on Channel Five – next to the bed there’s a gold-framed photo, of somewhat happier days – mum and Phil, both dolled up like royalty, posh hats an all, enjoying a day out at the races. There’s a half drunk mug of tea, a scrunched up Kleenex, my new plum red lipstick missing its lid, bus tickets, loose change, pills in amber phials, and a curled up trashy magazine.

Billy appears in the doorway, rubbing his head, looking proper vexed. He’s mouthing something I don’t need to hear to understand. He jabs stubby fingers my direction, then turns away. He opens the door to the front room, goes in. Even from here, I can hear mum screaming out numbers that I recognise at a blaring telly – thirteen, twenty- four, thirty. Her birthday, Billy’s birthday, my birthday – putting all her hopes on a set of random balls that never seem to land right, they never will, dumbass, I always tell her, but it makes no difference. I wait outside a while longer and begin scratching away at my arm until a trickle of blood comes.

Once I think Billy’s gone out for the evening, I creep back inside. His keys are gone from the hook in the hallway, and I’m relieved he’s nowhere to be seen. Mum is sound asleep on the sofa and her ugly-toothed mouth hangs open. The telly is selling garish jewellery to all the mugs out there. I look hate at her for believing Billy over me. I hate Billy for ruining everything, I really do. I exit, leaving the telly on, slamming the door behind me.

I fix myself tea and toast, and by the time a stoned Billy gets home, I’m feigning sleep and not worth the hassle.

#

I deliver newspapers in the mornings before school, but today is Sunday, which means heavy old broadsheets, which means glossy magazines. On the plus side, I don’t have to get up so early; the minus being that the run takes twice as long. My route takes me to the nicer part of town, near the park, where actors and retired coppers dwell side by side with rich old folk that live in immaculately gardened mansion blocks. There’s an old guy on the top floor who was the main man in some cop show, The Sweeney, I think it was called – he’s a Times man, as is the ex Doctor Who in number fifty-seven. He’s good people, handed me a crisp tenner last Christmas, he’s got this yappy little dog I call Inspector that hears me coming a mile off, however quiet I try to be.

The paper run has to be split today, there’s only so much I can carry, but at least by the time I’ve dropped my bag back to the shop the sun is out and the moment feels a little better. I decide to cut through the cemetery on the way home. There’s a flower stall set up outside the gates. The real pretty girl working there is wearing a big collared red check shirt and a black leather gilet with overloaded pockets. She’s not wearing makeup, she doesn’t need it. Her chestnut hair’s hidden under a cloth granddad cap, but a braided ponytail hangs over her shoulder, falls across her breasts. I can’t help but stare, and when the beautiful girl smiles at me, I so want to smile back, but instead I look away, feel my face redden, quickening my pace.

Billy’s got names for girls like me, lots of them.

There are two sections in the cemetery. As the sun is out and I’ve nothing to rush to, I decide to head over to the older part. I like it amongst the disrepair, the neglect, maybe I feel at home amongst the forgotten. I like how quiet it is there. Dark granite headstones are weathered, some are fissured and cracked, their inscriptions eroded away by wind and rain. The occupants are long gone. Once white marbles now stained to a dirty ash sink into earth a little deeper each passing year. I scan names and dates. I find myself working out how old Greta Cotts was, when in 1905, she was ‘taken by the Lord,’ and I wonder how and why she came to die so young. Next to her lies a Herbert Huxley and I wonder if he was some ancestor of mine, and if he was, why mum had never mentioned him. Looking a little closer at the eroded text on the headstone, I see that his name was Huntley, so that’s why you idiot, I scold myself out loud and I so want to scratch into my flesh. I think that Grandma Huxley is buried in here, but she’s somewhere over in the newer section and someone I don’t remember ever knowing.

I fish about in my pocket for a distraction, and find a pear drop to suck on. Kneeling on the damp grass I dwell a while on Greta, her fifteen short years hardly constitutes a life, does it? Just a journey cut short before it began. I’m fifteen too, and feel my life’s not yet begun either. I feel a chill that it never will. I get up and say goodbye to this complete stranger, a girl from a different time, but for some reason I think I would like to have known her. The last remnant of pear drop cuts into the roof of my mouth.

As I pass the small chapel, I spy Billy and a couple of his mates leant against the redbrick wall, looking like they’re doing nothing in particular, but managing to look guilty nonetheless, the way we youngsters can. Billy still owes me for the dart incident so I keep my distance.

“Hey there Ali!” shouts Forbsey. I ignore him, them. They all, of course, find something extremely side-splittingly hilarious. Forbsey got badly burnt a couple of years ago crossing the railway for a dare; he tripped over his laces and caught the live rail, or so the story goes. His face and arms are still all pocked. For some reason his big sister rubbed butter all over him before the ambulance arrived, thought it would help – the clown – said she saw it in some war film. Billy was with him at the time of the accident and never once waivered from the story, but that’s not the whole truth. I know it for sure; I can all to easily tell when he’s lying, even if no one else can.

I’m grateful to be out of sight in a few quick steps, and relieved that Billy doesn’t follow, I don’t fancy a fight right now.

On my way home, mum’s ex-, Phil, drives passes me on the high road. There’s nothing particular about the car, it’s as indistinct as any, but I can tell it’s him, even though he hasn’t been around for over a year now. Maybe it’s the sound that’s familiar. He pulls over outside the laundrette, and leans across to the passenger window. I liked Phil, have no reason not to now, even after all that went down. I consider him as the closest thing to a father out of all the dumbasses mum ever brought home.

“Hi there,” he says, shielding his eyes from the sun. He’s wearing a tight red pullover, his once long hair’s been buzzed short, and now has a beard, it’s speckled with white on his chin. I think it suits him. “You’re looking great,” he adds, “how’s your mum?”

I know I don’t look great. He knows I don’t look great.

“Oh, the same,” I reply. The same, I wonder if that even counts as an answer at all. But that’s all I’m bothered to say.

Phil tells me he’s working in town again, asks me about school, and about Billy, tells me to work hard for exams in the summer, to get into college. Travel the world. His smile is sympathetic.

I say I will, but guess I won’t. Phil offers me a ride home that I think about accepting, if only to spite mum. But I don’t.

I really can’t figure how he can ask after Billy, even mention his name. After all, it was Billy who started it with all the accusations and lies about us. He’d just lost it after we’d had some sibling spat about nothing of consequence, and ran off telling mum this and that. He even told her he’d caught us in her bed together. Hell, I don’t even like guys, and I guess Billy plain didn’t like having a father figure around for too long either.

Mum believed Billy’s lie, every single goddam word of it.

Mum thought me prettier than her. Younger. Sexier.

Mum knows how men are.

It was probably the best thing for Phil; after all, you can’t love someone who doesn’t believe in you. Can you?

“See you around,” he says, and pulls away from the kerb. I’m sure that he will. I’m heading nowhere fast.

Nowhere.

Fast.

#

I think of Greta Cotts, she was already dead at fifteen. But she had no choice.

I hear a tiny voice inside my head; don’t throw it all away, it whispers.

#

I’m back home now.

I slowly open the door to mum’s room, wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I go to the window and tease open the winter-thick floral curtains. Dust dances on the sunlight. Mum’s in bed, still sleeping, she looks so old, so tired, so defeated. The silver lid of the lipstick catches my eye as it sparkles on the floor; I pick it up, move over to the bedside and replace it, fix it. Mum stirs; her eyes open, and in that fragment of time between sleep and wake she’s forgotten her anger. But her eyes are so full of sad. I smile into them and whisper softly.

“Good morning mum. Fancy a cup of tea?”

nerd glasses with tape

Lee Hamblin is from London. He is a yoga teacher, a massage therapist, and a short story writer. He is married with no children, (but having ten cats is quite a handful) and lives on a quiet island somewhere in Greece.

In a bygone era he wrote and produced music from a variety of extremely loud, dark, and smoky rooms. Now enjoying considerably fresher air, he still prefers to spend most of his time indoors staring at computer screens, even if they happen to be blank.

He has had stories published on-line in The Red Line and The Londonist and was shortlisted for the BBC’s 2015 Opening Lines competition.

He will one day return to the bustle of his UK hometown (you can take the boy out of the city…) and can be reached on twitter @kali_thea

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