This isn’t my dress. It sticks to my skin. I pull it away but the red shiny material crackles with electricity and clings to my legs. The straps slip off my shoulders and there isn’t enough of me to fill the front.
Outside the sun beats hard on the pavement. Through the grille, the feet of people that don’t know I’m here rush past. I watch tiny specks dance in the light. I want to shout but I can’t without my sister. I’m only half a person without her.
Wheels on the road spin in clouds of dust and screech away. I wait down here where the air is thick. I sit on the bed and let my feet swing over the dirty boards. The springs bounce and creak. I wish that Lenka was with me, or that I was with the other girls, but today I’m on my own, in someone else’s dress.
Far away, a radio plays, men laugh and the bangs and bumps in the other rooms shake the house. There’s a pain in my belly. It was yesterday when I ate something. He said I could have food after. I want to lie down but it’s not my blanket. It won’t smell right
Boots stomp about outside.
I sit up straight and grip the cold metal frame of the bed. Breath is hard to find.
Keys rattle on the other side of the door.
I slide off the bed and drag the dirty cover with me. It trails across the floor.
I hide in the corner. My heart, a bird in a cage, tries to escape. I taste sick and push myself further into the corner where the walls are cold on my shoulders and stare into a black, black hole.
Girl’s shoes tap along the corridor. “No! No! She’s too young! She’s not ready!”
“Lenka!” I run to the locked door. I try to twist the handle but it slips in my sweaty hand.
The lock clicks.
I put my lips to the crack. “Lenka! I’m in here!”
“Mischa, get away from the door!”
I step back. The door opens and Gregor, Big Gregor stumbles in. His gun swings from his belly and a sneer slides onto his face. “It’s time little Mischa, time to make you a woman!”
“No!” Lenka pulls at his sleeve. It rips. He swipes her away. Lenka, my Lenka, falls backwards. Her head hits the doorframe. There’s a crack. I run to pull her up but Gregor stands between us.
Lenka puts her hand to her head. I try to take her hand but Gregor pushes me away. He drags his arm across his forehead and licks his lips.
Behind him, Lenka struggles to get up. She puts one finger to her mouth. A trickle of blood runs down her neck. I step back. She’s reaching for the gun dangling from a belt round his fat middle. Lenka’s finger curls round the trigger of the gun, still in the pouch on his belt.
I catch my breath.
Gregor twists to see my sister at his side. A shot explodes and he crashes to the boards at my feet. He clutches his leg. “Vixen, you will pay!”
Lenka falls in a heap by the bed. Her eyes shut. Blood stains her dress. I push past Gregor on the floor and take the hand I couldn’t take before.
“Run sister, run,” she whispers.
Lenka is my sun. How can I leave her? Without her, I am dark and lost with no path.
I kneel beside her and lay my head on her shoulder, my arm around her waist. I feel her chest rise and fall, her breaths are short and sharp.
“Run baby sister, you must run while you can.” Her voice is a whisper. “This is what I do for you.” Her head flops on the edge of the bed a stain grows on the mattress. Her chest falls, a puff of air comes from her mouth but she takes nothing. Her body has stopped: my sister has gone.
“No!” I squeeze her body to make it work again. “No! Lenka come back!” She’s heavy on my arm.
Gregor groans on the floor. His leg bleeds. It doesn’t bleed enough.
“She has paid and so will you little girl.” He wriggles and reaches for the gun. “Imbeciles!” He shouts to his men somewhere in the house. “Didn’t you hear the shot?”
I hold my sister with all my might as if my life will overflow into her body.
Gregor points the gun.
I close my eyes; I’ll be whole again.
Another shot bursts my ears. Am I dead too now?
But a storm of feet thunder through the upstairs floors. The shot was not for me.
I lift my arms, heavy broken bars, away from Lenka’s body. She slumps to the floor. My heart breaks to leave her but I do. I run to the light, to the outside door at the end of the corridor where the cracks shine with day.
I open the door, feel the lock click.
“Your sister is not dead. Would you leave her?”
My hand rests on the handle, half of Gregor is in the corridor like a big fat snake.
“She’s whispering your name. ‘Mischa!’ she calls. ‘Help me!’” he hisses, pulling himself up against the doorframe.
My sister is gone, isn’t she? I felt her life leave.
Gregor’s on his feet, he drags his bloody leg along the corridor, a lie all over his face.
For only half a person I’m so heavy. All of me wants to be with her and the wanting drags me down.
More boots stamp through the house above.
“Idiots! Find the little…”
They’ve found Big Gregor.
Her last words for me are still in my head ‘run sister run’ and with my heart like a stone, I do.
I run up the stairs where the stone treads are worn smooth. My head tells my body that I must run for my sister. I grab the rails and pull myself out of the under-street world to the noise and dust above it.
My eyes close against the brightness. I trip and fall into a woman’s legs, her skirt flaps around me and I tumble into the road. A horn blares and a car screeches and swerves. The driver shouts. I can’t see.
Somewhere behind the wall of noise boots are hard on the pavement. I cover my eyes with my hand and look through tiny slits. Determined people walk in every direction. My head is filled with Gregor. Is he with them, behind me, running now too, his leg spurting blood? I am in the dress that screams here I am to anyone who’s looking and wants to see. If they see the number on my arm they’ll know what I am too.
A man in a shirt that sticks with wet to his body pulls a rack of clothes to the market stalls with candy stripy roofs. I run across the square to the man and his rack. People see me but I don’t think they want to. They are glad when I bury myself in scratchy fabric. I pull the clothes around me like a cloak and peek out.
Gregor’s friends run to the middle of the square and stand like searchlights. Their hands shade their eyes; they look but they don’t see me. The dull clothes shade the brightness of my dress. They light cigarettes and turn to talk to each other.
My shoulders sag and I breathe in a long deep breath and the heavy, heavy sadness that I have lost my sister; that I left her behind.
A fat woman sifts through the clothes on my rack. “I’m looking for something flattering for the fuller figure.”
“Well you’re on the outsize rack, love.” The rack man leans on the rail.
I cover my nose from the stink of the two wet patches under his arm.
The hangers rattle as the woman slides the clothes along. The cloth brushes my bare arms and I try to catch the tiny breeze they make. I shuffle and hide in her shade where it’s cooler.
She unhooks a dress like a big flag off the rail and holds it against her body. “How much is this?”
“I’ll do it for you for ten.” The man takes a long suck on his cigarette and flicks off the hot ash with his finger.
It lands on my shoulder. It burns. I cry and I stand up to brush it off. My head bangs the rail.
“What you doing down there kid? Get out of it!” He bats me with his hand. Like a siren, my red dress screams where I am.
The men point and I run into the crowd like slime, oozing through the market. I run and dodge and slip and…
A face full of belly.
“Gotcha!” Two big arms clamp round my middle. They lift me off the ground I kick my legs, my shoe falls off. He runs. I joggle in his arms.
I did run, Lenka I did but I didn’t run fast enough.
I twist my face against the soft of his shirt. I take a breath of air that isn’t him and look up…
14 years later
“Mitch love, where do you want this?” Dad all red-faced lumbers in with a box of stuff that’s probably all junk. Oh well, Oxfam, you’re in for another treat.
“Dad, come and get a beer, I’ll do the rest.”
The sun pours through open front door behind him. He tucks the box of miscellaneous clutter inside the bedroom door, takes a hankie out of his pocket and wipes his forehead. “Kath! Get that kettle on!”
“Thought you were having a beer?” calls Mum from the kitchen.
“Nothing like a really hot cup of tea to cool you down. I’ll have the beer after.”
I take Dad’s hand and pull him through the living room. He lingers over his open box of tools.
“No, you’ve done enough for today,” I say.
“Don’t you want me just to fix that tap?”
“Later. Look I’ve put a chair for you outside, in the shade.”
The patio doors are already open ‘to let the breeze through’ said Mum, as soon as we arrived, ‘the old out and the new in’. She breezed through checking the place was good enough for her girl. I know they’re worried. I suppose I am a bit too. But right now I can’t tell if it’s a teensy bit of a hangover after last night with Ellie and Tom, the hollow dread of the unfamiliar, or extreme excitement about work on Monday.
I put on my ‘happy face’; lay my hands on Dad’s damp shoulders and steer him away from urgent DIY to the tiny yard that allows the landlord to attach ‘garden’ to the description of this one bedroom flat in Finsbury Park.
“We’re going to miss you love.” Dad still has his back to me but I hear the break in his voice.
“I’m only four stops away on the Piccadilly line from you guys. I’ll be fine.” I kiss the bristles on his cheek before he flumps in the deck chair. I’m going to cry and I don’t want to. I turn away now and drag a finger under each eye. “Sure you don’t want that beer first?”
“Aww, go on then.” He crosses his arms over his belly, shuts his eyes and soaks up the cool in the leafy shade.
Mum appears as if by magic, tea towel slung over her shoulder, swinging a bottle dripping condensation. Suddenly, even Belgian lager looks inviting. “Here you go.” Mum gives Dad the beer and squeezes my hand, hers still cold and wet from the bottle.
I follow her back into the kitchen.
“There I’ve given your fridge a good clean.” She stands back as if the oversized larder fridge inherited from the previous tenants is something by Anthony Gormley.
“But they did it already, for me to move in.”
“Well, even so, I just like to make sure.”
A tiny half tear sits at the corner of her eye. She gives a good impression of being all efficiency but she’s just as soft as Dad.
A snore from the patio gives Mum the cue for a bit of a ‘mother and daughter’. “You know how he is, you’ve given us so much love, you were like a dream come true and he thinks that this’ll be it. You’ll get all caught up with the telly world and forget us.”
I don’t know where to start ” No…How? Of course I won’t!” I wrap my arms around my adopted mother, the only mum I’ve known except for….
She melts in to me and when I look up, the tear has spilled over and her eyes glisten but she’s the one to wipe my cheek with her thumb. “We’re all as bad as each other, aren’t we? And he knows it’s nonsense, really.”
That’s the sound of a woman looking for reassurance. “Mum, you and Dad are my family and I love you. I will always be here for you like I know you will for me. That is never, ever going to change.”
Her hand is soft on my face, “No love, I know.” She takes it away, gently. “How about waking your dad up for that cup of tea? Mum bustles about with the kettle fresh out of its packaging, Then out of her huge bag that contains everything for every conceivable emergency, she lifts out a ribboned parcel. “You’d better unwrap this first.”
The lumpy ball shape is a dead giveaway. I’m all hope and expectation. I undo the bow, fingers tingling; the paper falls away and…. Oh she has! She got it! In my hands is the most vintage of vintage teapots, all twiddly bits, covered in gilt and Jane Austen flowers! It screamed to me from a charity shop window on my way to my last counselling session ever. I thought, that’s not going to be there long but I couldn’t stop to get it, I was sooo late. She must have gone and got it, the minute I told her. “Oh Mum I love it!” I fling my arms around her neck.
“Let’s not smash it before you’ve had a chance to see if it makes tea as good as it looks.” And off she bustles again but I feel her smile inside.
After tea, Mum’s flat-warming chocolate fudge cake and a few more tears (note to self: must get Tom and Ellie round asap to help me out with the cake if I don’t want Godzilla’s toosh or my face to erupt) I kiss my mum and my dad good bye and close the door to be on my own since… since forever.
That time then didn’t count.
I’m properly on my own now, independent for the first time and all I want to do is have a good cry.
I’ll get the crying out of the way – it has to be done – and then I’ll choose what I’m going to wear to Perspective Productions on Monday.
I flump on my Mum-made bed, I slip my hand under the new duvet, feel for my old blanket and let it all splurge out.
After about ten minutes, I wonder about the woman upstairs. I met her when we looked round but she seemed the sort that was in touch with her emotions so I decide not to care whether she can hear and go for a bit more.
My hair is stuck to my face. I pull at the t-shirt that I’ve had on since well before it’s acceptable to get up on a Saturday morning. Phewee! Shower-time, I think and pat the bed for my phone.
Through the window the sky is the most delicious pinky orange and I desperately need the loo. I find the phone in its own duvet nest.
God, it’s eight thirty.
I scrape my hair away, roll onto the floor then pull myself up. For a moment I can’t remember where the toilet is, apart from somewhere outside the bedroom, but that’s a good start anyway.
I almost trip over it, not the toilet, the last box that Dad brought in.
That box should have stayed in the deepest darkest corner of the loft at home. And I have to find a cover for it before I do anything.
Dad couldn’t have known what was inside or he’d never have brought it in. Between a pair of roller boots 6 sizes too small, and a few books from college that didn’t find their way back to the library, there’s a flash of red.
My face burns and goosebumps pop up all over my arms.
Nothing else I own is that red, a shiny, clingy, trashy red.
I’m starving, my bladder is a water bomb about to explode and I stink of moving-in sweat but nothing is more urgent than getting that dress out of my sight.