The baby is screaming and Karen can’t seem to quieten her. It’s hard to ignore a baby when it’s screaming. Sometimes Karen claps and sings and the baby stops crying, and smiles and claps herself. But it’s not working tonight. The screams are starting to do Karen’s head in. All she wanted to do was watch Eastenders and eat a choc ice. She won’t get cross with Katie. She’s only a baby.
‘Ssh, Katie, Ssh now baba,’ says Karen, jogging Katie on her hip. The baby’s had her bottle of milk, heated in the microwave. She’s got a clean nappy on and has been given her dummy, which she keeps taking out and throwing on the floor. Karen picks it up. It is coated in dust and dog hairs; she has to blow it before trying to keep it in the baby’s mouth.
‘Mummy will be home soon, darling, don’t you worry,’ she says, ‘then you can settle down.’ This isn’t true. Mum is at skittles; she had said she wouldn’t be late home this time. But Karen doesn’t believe her any more. And Mummy is probably getting pissed out of her head. Katie is red-faced and gulping in huge amounts of air, real tears dripping from the pinkish corners of her eyes. Karen has no idea when their mum will be back. Going to skittles never means just throwing a ball down an alley in a pub then coming home. Going to skittles usually means going to the pub upstairs afterwards for a few more drinks, then down the seafront for a few more, then wandering home pissed, arm in arm with some bloke in the middle of the night. When she gets in, she’ll put music on in the sitting room, dance and bang around and wake everybody up, even if they’ve got to get up for school.
Mum drinks in the mornings sometimes. She’ll pick up a half-empty can of beer from the floor and have it for breakfast. She’s sort of pretty and not pretty, their mum. She’s very thin but has a wobbly belly from having all the kids. ‘My jelly belly’, she calls it. She’s got curly, scraggly hair with blonde bits in. Sometimes she dyes the blonde bits red, or purple, which looks kind of cool till the dye fades and her hair goes a dirty greenish brown, the colour of river water, for a few days till she dyes it again. Karen hasn’t ever dyed her hair. ‘You’re too young,’ her mum tells her, but she’s not too young to be looking after babies, or cooking tea, or attempting to clean up the shit-hole they live in. Mum never eats more than the occasional piece of toast, or a biscuit dipped in coffee. She wants to be thin because that’s why men like her, because she’s thin and sort-of pretty and drinks booze and laughs a lot. Mum can’t be on her own; says she doesn’t know how to.
The baby, thank God, has stopped crying now, so Karen takes her upstairs, their two black Labradors following her up the stairs, their paws making a skittering sound on the wood. They lie down on the landing as though they are waiting for her. She lays Katie carefully in the cot, tucking the blankets around her. Katie’s hands, she notices, are filthy, dirt rubbed into all the creases, hairs poking out from in between her fingers as if she’s tried to grab one of the dogs. Karen tiptoes away as quietly as she can. She peeks around her brother Sam’s door, to check he hasn’t been woken up. There’s a boy-shaped hump in the bed, and Sam’s snoring like a pig.
She goes back downstairs, nearly tripping over all the toys and clothes on the stairs. Karen loves going round Zoe’s house, where you can walk up the stairs without falling over anything. Where the sofa is just a sofa and not piled with ripped magazines, sweet wrappers and dirty clothes. Where the kitchen sink is silver and shines and doesn’t have brown slime under the drainer and round the taps. Mum and her mates don’t do housework; they boast about how messy their houses are. How long it’s been since they last scrubbed their toilets or ran the hoover round. It’s almost like a competition. Mum is one of the best.
‘Housework is boring,’ she always says, ‘it’s for losers! Sad women who haven’t got anything better to do than polish their china.’
When she can’t be bothered to wash up, which she often can’t, she will say, ‘Kids, let’s have a picnic!’ And then she’ll go down the little shop and come back with cakes and biscuits and bottles of coke. They’ll eat on the sofa, crumbs dropping down the sides of the cushions and on the floor.
Will it get better when she’s grown up? She can see it stretching before her; years of looking after Katie and keeping an eye on Sam. Years of dirt and dog hair and cigarette smoke. Maybe she won’t have any kids herself. She’ll be too knackered after looking after her brother and sister for years. Like her sister did for her. Karen misses Michelle, and feels a pang like a knife in her belly when she thinks of her. She longs to hear her voice. Shelly always makes her laugh. If she ever ran away, she would go to Michelle’s. There aren’t really any other options. The only people Karen knows who don’t live in this town are Michelle, their dad, and a boy from her class who went to live in America.
Dad’s not allowed to their house any more after what he did. He got sent to prison for a few years. It was in all the papers, on the front page, a grainy picture of his face. People in the town have only just stopped gossiping about it. It was only when Michelle decided to tell someone that it all kicked off. Mum knew, but she didn’t stop him. Karen can hardly remember now. She was only a little kid. She thought he was giving her special cuddles, like he said. She can’t remember his face properly – even though it’s not very long since he left – and there are no photos of him in the house. She’d still like to see him, even though he did a Very Bad Thing and some of mum’s friends want to kick his head in. Katie is too young to say if he ever did the bad thing to her. Karen hopes not. She’s just a baby.
Karen often imagines running away from this life and never coming back, not till she’s all grown up and got her own flat and a car and a job. She would take her brother and sister to live with her, in her nice clean flat.
She picks up her mobile and dials her sister’s number, praying she’ll answer.
‘Hello my darling. How’s things? Mum behaving herself?’
‘Yeah, spose. I’m babysitting and Katie wouldn’t stop crying for hours.’
Shelly sighs. ‘Again? Where’s Mum?’
‘Where do you think?’ An idea that’s been in Karen’s mind seems to be taking shape, forming a life of its own. Maybe running away isn’t just some little kid’s fantasy. Maybe it’s something she can actually do.
‘I want to come and stay with you,’ she says, testing the water.
‘Oh, sweetheart, maybe in a couple of weeks? I’ve got a lot on at work, but the weekend after next is free. Can you hang on till then?’
‘You don’t understand. I want to come right now and I don’t want to live here anymore!’ A sob escapes from her before she even knew it was there. She puts her hand over her mouth as if to stop any more coming out.
Michelle’s voice becomes softer. ‘I know, darling, I know how hard it is, I’ve been there, remember? But the only alternative is going into care. And you don’t want that, do you? You’d all be split up. This is the only way you can stay together.’
Upstairs, the baby lets out a cry and Karen holds her breath, thinking it’s going to start all over again. But she must have gone back to sleep as she stays quiet. The dogs sniff around her feet and she shoos them away. Blackie goes to his bed in the kitchen, and Marley (named after Bob) follows, nipping at his feet.
‘I just need to get away for a bit, Shell. I know I’ll have to come back. I just need a break. You understand. I know you do. Please say you understand.’
Michelle is silent at the other end of the phone.
‘Is school on at the moment, or is the hols yet?’
‘Only tomorrow, and then it’s half term. Are you saying I can come? Please?’ Karen can hear the little-kid whine in her voice.
Michelle pauses for a moment then sighs, deeply. ‘OK, darling.’ she says, and Karen can feel her heart lifting. ‘You can come for a few days as long as you promise you won’t give me any grief about staying longer. Have you got any money for the fare?’
She is so happy she can’t stop smiling. She has money, saved from years of being handed fivers or tenners by her drunken mother and her friends. They’re in a fat wad, at the back of her wardrobe, in an old tampax box. She’s good with money; likes to save it mostly, apart from if she needs to buy something for them all to eat because Mum’s run out between giros.
‘Yeah, I promise,’ she says, although her fingers are crossed behind her back. ‘No worries about the money. I’ve got loads. I’ll wait till Mum gets back then get a taxi to the station.’
‘Text me just before you get in. I don’t like the idea of you travelling alone at night. I’ll be there to meet you off the train. Don’t sit next to any weirdos, OK?’
Karen says yes and hangs up. She tiptoes up the stairs, as quietly as she can because the carpet’s almost worn through to the bare wood in some places and footsteps are amplified. She avoids all the things she can trip on. She pulls a sports bag out from under her bed and starts throwing things in it: knickers, jumpers and jeans. She gets her toothbrush from the bathroom. It feels exciting, like an adventure, and she knows she will do whatever it takes to not have to come back. She feels a bit bad for lying to Shelly, but is sure she’ll forgive her.
It’s really bad, she knows, but she can’t wait till her mum gets home. It would be too late; there wouldn’t be any trains running by then and she has to go, now. It feels so urgent and heavy, this knowing she has to leave, like the air before a thunderstorm.
Karen rings a taxi and books it for five minutes’ time. The last train is at eleven. It’ll be the middle of the night by the time she gets in, but Shelly will be there. She looks in a mirror and pulls a brush through her hair, which is mousey brown and hangs limply around her round face. She smears lip gloss on her lips, then puts her trainers on. She goes upstairs to check on the kids. Katie is still asleep, little fat arms flung up above her head, little fat belly rising up and down, her puff of gold hair sticking up around her head like a dandelion clock. Karen will miss her more than anything. Sam is still snoring in his room, the covers flung off him, his brown hair stuck to his face with sweat. She tiptoes in and pulls his covers over him. Wants to kiss his cheek but is afraid she’ll wake him up.
She texts her mum, fingers moving quickly over the buttons: Goin out 4 a bit u need 2 come back 2 b with kids. No kiss. Then she sends the same text to Mum’s friend Sarah, in case she’s out with her. So that’s two adults who know the kids will be on their own. If Mum doesn’t come back at least she’s tried her best. After all, they are her mum’s kids, not hers.
Downstairs she looks out of the glass pane in their front door and sees the yellow light of the taxi outside. She’s breathing too quickly. ‘Keep it together, Karen,’ she says. ‘You need to do this.’ She thinks of Sammy and Katie waking the next morning to find she’s gone, and the image of their tear-stained, dirty faces makes a tear fall from her eye. She thinks of strange men being in the same house as Katie as she gets older, without Karen to protect her, and what they might want to do to her. She wonders how old Sammy would be before he’d have to start babysitting. She discovers she can’t do this after all. Opening the door and putting it carefully on the latch, she walks to the car. The driver lowers the window. He is fat and more than fills his seat. He has a kind look about him.
‘Going to the station, love?’
‘I’m so sorry, but I haven’t been able to get a babysitter after all. Please take this for your trouble.’ She hands him a ten pound note. For your trouble. Where did she get that from? It sounds too grown up, too posh.
‘Thanks love. Not to worry. You don’t need to pay me.’ He hands the money back. If he thinks it odd that a skinny eleven-year-old is talking about babysitters, he doesn’t show it. ‘You have a good night, now.’
He closes the window and drives off. Karen stands there for a moment, watching the car until it turns off at the end of the road and out of sight.
Inside the house, she puts her bag in her room. She can’t be bothered to unpack it. She spends the rest of the evening lying on the sofa, watching TV, eating ice creams. She texts Shelly, Cant find mum, cant come now, soz, speak soon xxx.
In bed, she sleeps lightly, ready to jump up and make Katie a bottle if she wakes. But she’s been so good the last few weeks, sleeping through till morning, then lying in her cot kicking and gurgling to herself, sucking on her fat little hands. She always has the biggest smiles when she wakes up, even if her nappy is soaking wet like it often is.
In the morning, Mum is there, humming to herself in the kitchen while she makes a pile of toast for the kids. Either she has got up ridiculously early, or she hasn’t been to bed yet. She doesn’t mention the texts from last night. Katie is in her high chair, playing with a grey lump of bread, the mush oozing through her fingers. Sam is dressed in his school clothes. He looks tired and grumpy and his hair is sticking up.
‘Morning love,’ Mum says. It never feels real when she’s like this; it’s as though she’s acting the part of a mother in a play. ‘How was Katie last night? Was she good for you?’ Her make-up looks old and rubbed in, black falling out of her eyes and down her cheeks like soot. Her skin looks red and wrinkled. She’s starting to look old. She’s wearing the tight purple sequinned dress she went out in last night. So she hasn’t been to bed. She stinks of booze; the smell is coming off her in waves.
Karen picks up a piece of toast from the pile and spreads margarine and pink jam on it.
‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘She was good as gold.’
Louisa Adjoa Parker asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work