You weren’t supposed to take calls in the shop, but, because Cara had worked there ages, and was only part-time now anyway, she’d answered. You never knew. It was a woman, the secretary from school. Regarding Ruby, she’d said. Mr. Preston would like to see you, soon as possible.
“Is she all right?” Cara asked.
She’s fine, the woman had said, though she didn’t sound too sure.
“I’m at work,” Cara said, “I’ll have to see what I can do.” She shoved her mobile into her back pocket. Mr. Preston was the deputy head now. Press-ups is what they used to call him when she was at the school: he took them for netball and rounders. Press-ups, in those days, had been their word for sex. She was on her knees unpacking a trolley into the bottom of the dairy section, and continued mechanically to unload the contents of the boxes, arranging blocks of butter into a low straight wall. But it was no use, she couldn’t concentrate. She abandoned the trolley to see if Nigel was at the tills, looking down, past the ranks of booze. He’s out the back, one of the other girls signaled with her thumb.
The trolley jammed if you tried to move too quickly; she dragged it through the long flaps of plastic. She could see the greasy thumbprint of Nigel’s head through the Perspex window of the office. “Can I have a word?” she said, tapping at the open door. Nigel folded his newspaper, moving at his own pace.
“It’s my little girl,” she said.
The walkie-talkie at his belt crackled with security from the other shop.
“The school’s rung,” she said. “It’s an emergency.”
Nigel took his time. “Go on,” he said, making a meal of it. “We’ll survive.”
She was already unbuttoning her tabard. “I owe you one.”
“Keep you to that,” he said, holding her eye.
She wove across the main drag of the high street, a man in mirror shades, blaring hip-hop, elbow tucked out of the car window giving her the thumbs-up. Everywhere, it seemed, the sap was rising. The afternoon sun was high as a holiday, and though you couldn’t see the sea for all the buildings and car parks, the seagulls were proclaiming it, cruising on a breeze that funneled down the feeder streets, eddies of dust and last night’s takeaways.
Cara entered through the main school gates with a sickening sense of déjà vu. She had to check herself—her green polo shirt and trousers—grateful for once for the distinction of a uniform that made you look like Cell Block H. The secretary came to pick her up from reception. Clack-clack-clack as she followed in her wake, through two sets of swing doors to a lobby area, all newly done since her day, with carpet tiles and low-slung squashy chairs, in one of which she recognized Ruby, slouched and pale.
“If you wait here, I’ll let Mr. Preston know,” the secretary said. Ruby didn’t look up. What? Cara stood over her fiercely, breathless from her walk. But the secretary had reappeared. “Mr. Preston’ll see you now,” she said.
From behind a desk, Mr. Preston rose. He was a blown-up version of his former self; his heavy jaw hung slack. He motioned them towards two plastic chairs with a soft, fat hand. “Bostock,” he pronounced. “Thought I recognized the name. Remind me?”
“Cara,” she said. “When you did P.E.”
“Yes. Absolutely. Cara Bostock. Please,” he said, looking her up and down, “take a pew. Well, now,” he said, fondling his tie. “How’s it going?”
“I’m doing an Access course,” Cara said, reddening. “So I can go to university. Nursing. I’ve come here from work.”
“Fantastic,” Mr. Preston said. “Pleased to hear it.” The secretary had perched herself at his elbow, pad and pen: she flashed a brief smile.
“What’s this about?” Cara asked.
Mr. Preston raised his eyebrows, cleared his throat. “Well, Ruby, perhaps you’d like to tell Mum what’s been going on?”
In the summer Ruby’s eyes got so blue people thought she wore colored lenses. She glared diagonally across the desk. There was a small, bronzed trophy on the far corner, a man brandishing a golf club, the checks on his trousers etched in meticulous detail.
“Well?” he asked.
Ruby tucked her chin into the neck of her school sweatshirt as if she had some live thing in her mouth and couldn’t move her lips for fear of letting it out.
“I’m afraid to say,” he said, sucking his teeth, “it looks as if Ruby has been caught dealing.”
Cara bristled. “Dealing?!” And then as the word sunk in, “Dealing what?”
Mr. Preston reached into an open drawer and drew something out, shoved it across the surface of the desk. It was a squat, plastic-coated bottle. Liquid Gold, it said in psychedelic letters.
“The pharmaceutical name, I believe, is amyl nitrate.” He’d reached again for his tie. “We discovered them at lunchtime in the toilets.”
Cara couldn’t believe it. She was bursting with the effort of not being able to take hold of Ruby and shake her. Why? She pinched into the flesh of her upper arm.
“As no doubt you can imagine—. As Ruby is well aware—,” Mr. Preston was batting at his trouser pocket: “This is a pretty serious matter. Excuse me—.” He shut his eyes, extending his jaw, gathered himself and sneezed headlong into a handkerchief.
“It was Ruby,” the secretary said, taking over, peering over the top of her specs, “went into the shop; Ruby, they say, was given money by the others.” Mr. Preston mopped his mouth, and sniffed, thanking her—his rat-like teeth—leaned back to tuck the handkerchief away.
Cara’s heart was pounding. “That’s not dealing,” she said. “Kids, mucking about.” Mr. Preston was scrabbling to find the words, but she didn’t give him pause: “Who’s selling it to them? Poppers? It’s them you should be getting hold of. They shouldn’t be allowed to sell stuff like that. Not to kids.” Her polo shirt by now was sticking to her sides, she could smell the fish counter from work.
The first thing she did when they got in was to have a wash, get herself out of those clothes. She squatted in the bath with the shower attachment until the water warmed up, began to soap herself, under the arms, the back of her neck, belly, thighs, between her legs. And as she brushed away the lather under the drizzle of water, that gentle hand of hers became somebody else’s: all she’d ever wanted was for there to be someone on her side, someone whose job it was occasionally to look after her.
“You’re the grown-up,” her own mother would say, taking Ruby’s part in almost any argument. “It’s up to you to behave.” They’d lived with her mum the first two years of Ruby’s life. When Cara could barely bring herself to look—the baby’s tiny fists, bashing the bottle away as if it were poison—Ruby’d spend the nights trussed up in her mother’s bed. Cara had been fifteen; she had no maternal instinct, not a clue. And when Ruby went round to stay with her nan now, Cara was told, of course, that Ruby was no problem: good as gold—as if to say the problem was hers: she was crap at being a grown-up, crap at being a mum, crap full stop.
“You’re twelve!” Cara said when she came through in her pale blue dressing gown, her head done up in a towel. Ruby had her legs hooked over the arm of the chair, her grubby socks; she was jabbing intently at a game on her mobile phone. “Listen to me,” Cara said. “It matters, school. If I’d just got on with it, like I should’ve. Put that thing down!”
Ruby paid no attention. Cara swooped and snatched the phone from her, stretching it high above her head. Ruby barely flinched; she wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction.
“Look at me,” Cara said. “What were you thinking?”
Ruby glared. The plait she wore for school hung over one shoulder like a fox’s tail. “It wasn’t me,” she said.
“What wasn’t you?”
“It wasn’t my idea.”
“Well, whose idea was it, then? Why didn’t you tell him that? Why didn’t you say? Ruby! What’s wrong with you?”
Ruby had made a straightjacket of her arms. She gazed into the black hole of the TV screen. Cara slipped the phone into her pocket, tightened her dressing gown and went to sit down by the computer. She unloosened the turban, letting the towel fall around her shoulders, bowed her head, and combed her wet hair into a veil in front of her face. Ruby was almost as big as she was, but, with her strawberry-red hair, looked nothing like. She’d found a biro and was twiddling it like a baton. Cara shook her head and surfaced, paddled round in the swivel chair, reaching under the table to switch on the computer. Its whirring gave the room a jolt. She tapped out her password: spider2000.
In September she’d been given a place at the university, a bursary, as long as she got enough credits. “About time,” is what her mum had said when she showed her the letter. “I hate seeing that head of yours go to waste.”
Cara glanced sideways, taking the precaution of tilting the monitor so that it was out of Ruby’s line of vision. She’d bookmarked the site. Today, of all days, she deserved a break. Thank you! Her heart flared as she landed on the tiny envelope icon. She rapped the mouse, shuggled the cursor, keeping Ruby in the corner of her eye, and clicked it open. It was him, the man from Bude. Cuddlybear: Divorced, two kids. He was wrapped up somewhere outdoors, north coast. Her bones skipped. She only had to light the touch paper and, bam, she had another life: ball games on the beach, kids doing what kids did—not sniffing things, holed up in the bogs. She wasn’t only thinking of herself: family, siblings for Ruby, a dad.
Monie had taken the picture for her down by Smeaton’s Tower in her black sleeveless top. She was smiling, relaxed. Outdoorsy, she’d wanted to look. They’d had vodka and chips for lunch and laughed so hard they’d scared men off who’d otherwise have been sniffing round, trying to pick them up. She attached the file and pressed send as if she were packing someone else off, like Little Red Riding Hood, to do the job. She watched the message vanish from her outbox.
“Do I?” Ruby asked for the second time. Cara started. “Do you what?” finding it impossible to do two things at once.
“Look like him?”
Ruby was jabbing the biro into the palm of her hand. “Michael.”
Cara twisted round. “Don’t do that!” she said. There was ink bleeding from the neck of the pen.
Ruby took no notice, nudging the blot she’d made at the base of her thumb, drawing a flower. “Nan told me,” she said.
Cara blazed. She turned back round only to find her screen had gone to sleep. In its grayscale she caught herself like a furious ghost, the outline of her skull stark under her damp hair. “Your nan doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” she said, and banged the mouse to wake it up. They’d agreed! It was for the best, all that crap. Even now, though they had a place of their own, it seemed as if Ruby would rather be elsewhere.
“What was he like?” Ruby asked.
“Can you stop?” Cara said.
“Nan told me.”
“I don’t even know what we’re talking about!”
“She told me his name. Michael.”
Cara’s breath peaked like a wave. “Plenty of other kids are from single mums.”
Ruby was poking her cuff with the biro. “They see their dads at weekends.”
“People have babies in test tubes all the time.”
“I just want to know what he looks like,” Ruby said.
“They have sperm donors.”
“Is it true I look like him?”
“You’re nothing like. You don’t want to know.”
“He had red hair, didn’t he?”
“I can’t even remember.”
“You must have had sex with him?”
“He was a smackhead, OK? Did Nan tell you that?” It was like a cymbal crash, stars. “Sorry,” Cara said. “But you made me. Sorry. You wouldn’t shut up.”
Ruby pressed her nose between her knees, breathing the black heat from her trousers. Cara got to her feet. As she picked her way out of the room, the floor tilted like a boat. She heaved. “We need to eat,” she said, throwing herself a line as if any moment she’d be washed overboard.
In the kitchen, the tall, metal-framed doors to the balcony ran on tracks; they were stiff, and she had to shove with her shoulder, the weight of her body. She hung outside, breathing in the rumble of the street, the sound of kids—a boy from across the road showing off, rearing up on his bike. Why did the rest of the world run at a different pace from hers? When she turned inside it was like climbing back into a ditch. The top with the kettle and toaster was a mess. She dumped the dog ends of a loaf of bread into the bin. The fridge had belonged to a friend of her mum’s. It juddered when the door opened. From the freezer compartment she brought out a plate-sized disc, which stuck to her fingers.
“Pizza?” she called.
“Nan said he had red hair,” Ruby responded instantly. She was like a boxer in the ring who wouldn’t stop getting up.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Cara called back. The oven made its usual gurning noise, filling the small room with the smell of singeing rubber. Cara cut the cellophane with scissors, picked it off in triangles like slithers of glass.
“Why won’t you say?” the voice came again. This time Cara directed herself at the wall: “When’s he ever,” she said, hammering each word, “once, been a dad to you?” She’d opened a chasm between them, stood waiting to hear the penny drop. The oven buzzed, the fridge whined, and further off, outside, the indignant wail of some kid, a reel of seagulls. Cara tore a can from the four-pack on the side, and, because there was nowhere to sit, sank to the floor, her back against the door of the fridge, and tipped it down as if she were dousing a fire.
The place he’d lived in was near the Hoe. It was one of those big, old white houses with railings. There were bin liners up at the windows, various other people living there. You had to lay the loo seat with tissues before you sat on it; there was mold all over the shower curtain. But none of that mattered. You could do what you liked, stay up all night listening to music, smoking, talking. The others who hung round called him Spider. He was ten years older than she was, tall and gangly; he played his ukulele in the precincts of Drake’s Circus. His was the attic room, and, for a short while, what was his was hers. Once they’d got through the booze and fags, he’d chuck out the other bodies, and they’d creep into bed together, fumbling, befuddled, curl up, him around her like a shell.
He wouldn’t believe her now: her own flat, a fridge, a washing machine. And Ruby—as if she’d been grafted from his rib, brought back, perfectly formed, red in tooth and claw, from some trip.
“Come and eat,” Cara said, bringing the pizza through on the breadboard, setting it down on the carpet by the couch. She got down on her knees and started to saw. “I don’t care what the school says, you know. I don’t care who did what. But promise you won’t get into that stuff.” She stopped, the bread knife upright in her hand. Ruby had dragged herself over to the couch, drawn up her legs, holding the toes of her socks. “Don’t get messed up,” Cara said. “Promise me?”
Ruby took the remote from the armrest and zapped it towards the screen. It bloomed, full volume: a couple, filmed from above, climbing up a white wooden staircase. Five bedrooms, family-sized kitchen-diner, all within striking distance of Alison’s parents…
Cara handed Ruby a plate and three sections of pizza. She settled with her own, legs folded under, tore off the pointy end of a slice and raised an elbow to the screen, “I hate that smug cow, don’t you?”
Ruby snorted. They watched as the young couple were escorted in and out of three different houses, upstairs, down, nursery room, conservatory, out into the garden, swings, trampoline—they had everything ahead of them, no arguments, no fights.
“Better now?” Cara asked, giving Ruby a poke. She gathered up the empty plates. “Do you want a drink?”
As Cara untwisted her legs, Ruby said, “I never wanted to see him or anything, I only wanted to know what he was like.” Cara headed off into the kitchen and Ruby raised her voice. “Nan only told me the name because I kept asking. And about his hair, that’s all.” Although she didn’t appear to be, Cara was listening, setting the plates carefully slantwise in the small square sink so that she could hear. “She didn’t want me asking you,” Ruby called. Cara ran the tap to rinse her fingers, dried them, holding the tea towel around them tight as if she’d cut herself.
From where she was sitting, Ruby heard the door to Cara’s bedroom close deliberately. It had got to be like a drill in her head: when it started up, there was nothing else she could think about. She flicked through the channels on the TV, the pictures reeling like a fruit machine.
It was something you had to answer: truth or dare. “Are your pubes as ginger as your nut?” The shop, they’d pointed out, was on her way to school. There were red plastic buckets and broom handles outside. Inside it was badly lit; it smelled sweet and sour, of coconut oil and socks. There were two cluttered shelving units stretching back, but the counter, as they’d told her, was to the right, eye level, on a small platform.
The shop man put down his magazine. He was sitting on a high stool with a tight tan-colored shirt and chocolate eyes. Behind him, nailed to the wall, were hundreds of packs of silver and gold batteries. Her eyes darted along the counter. There was a box of cigarette lighters, a card of key rings with tiny black and white footballs. And then a handwritten sign: Special Offer: £5.00. He was waiting. She handed over two crumpled five-pound notes. He smoothed them out with his thumb—a heavy gold ring with a picture of an elephant on it—ironing them against the counter; tapped the till, its shunting drawer, and, glancing towards the door, reached over to remove a couple of bottles from the display, popped them into a white paper bag for her. Ruby’s head was tight as a balloon. She walked and didn’t stop. She could feel eyes burning into the back of her neck, from cars, from rooftops, from plain-clothed detectives, until she came within orbit of the school. There, in the chaos of arrival, she stuffed the bag in the front pocket of her rucksack, depositing the lot into her locker by the basement toilets.
In the doorway, Cara was waiting to get Ruby’s attention. “Will you turn that down a minute,” she said. She had something behind her back: “Close your eyes.” The way she said it, it was as if she had some special treat to give her. Ruby laid out her hand, eyes tight shut.
“Go on, then,” Cara said.
Whatever was there was light as a cracker. Ruby blinked: it was a track of photos. In the top one there were two people snogging—you couldn’t see their faces properly. But in the next she recognized her mum. She’d seen photos of her young before, when she was a Goth. Here she was laughing, sitting on a man’s knee, with dark purple lipstick, eyeliner. In the bottom photo, she’d fallen forwards so you could see more of the man’s face. He had scruffy hair, a big hoop earring and a smile like the Joker’s, a tooth missing. His eyes bored straight into hers. (Sniff! they’d said, tightening round her in a ring. Sniff it properly! ) Her heart leapt up into her throat, scrabbling to get out.
“I was mad about him,” Cara said. “I thought he was the coolest thing I ever saw. If he’d have told me to jump off a cliff, I’d have jumped.”
Ruby was glued to the strip. “He was older than me,” Cara said. “I was too young. I didn’t ask questions. I just thought, that’s how cool people live, that’s how they behave. But then you turned up. I had to leave school, my exams. I never saw him again.”
“Can I tell people?” Ruby asked.
“Tell them what?”
Cara sniffed. “No one ever called him Michael,” she said.
“What was he called, then?”
“They used to call him Spider.”
“I hate spiders!” Ruby glared at her in alarm.
“I know you do.” Cara was laughing, and then, as if she’d kick-started some engine inside her, “Mike,” she said, tears rolling. “That’s what I called him. That’s his name.”
Ruby let the photos drop. She was on her knees, shuffling over. “It’s all right,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.” She rubbed her mum’s back, up and down.
“Sorry,” Cara said. “Stupid,” wiping her cheeks with the heels of her hands. The relief had come from nowhere, a great wash. As if she’d had him locked up, banging and yelling to the point that she was too afraid to open the door for him, wondering what he’d do—scratch out her eyes, bash her over the head. But it was no big deal: he’d got to his feet, brushed himself off, and, without a word, disappeared calmly down the stairway like he used to, two steps at a time.
“He did have very long legs,” Cara said, staring at nothing in particular.
Ruby stopped rubbing. “Why don’t I have long legs, then?”
“Your legs are all right.”
“They’re not.” Ruby twisted round onto her seat and stretched her legs out straight to demonstrate. “I’ve got your legs.”
“I’m not saying they’re fat,” Ruby said, “they’re just not that long.”
“There you are, then. You have got something from me after all.” And she left it at that.