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Authors: Maxine Linnell

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Closer

Maxine Linnell

Five Leaves Publications

Closer

by Maxine Linnell

Published in 2011 by Five Leaves Publications

PO Box 8786, Nottingham NG1 9AW

www.fiveleaves.co.uk

© Maxine Linnell, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-907869-42-6

Five Leaves acknowledges financial support from Arts Council England

Cover design: Darius Hinks

Typesetting and design: Four Sheets Design and Print

For Kate and Benn
Acknowledgments

Thanks go to Ross Bradshaw, Penny Luithlen and David Belbin for helping with this book.

My son Benn died suddenly in November 2010. His life continues to be an inspiration; he was a huge support and a very good friend. Without him, and without the support of others,
Closer
wouldn't have been written or published. My thanks go to Kate and Liam Burlinson, Dave and Angie Linnell, John Beavan and Gayna Pelham for being there, and Jane Purkiss, Kate Ruse, Rosemary Clarke, Marilyn Ricci, Sue Clark, Ann Young and so many others for their continued support. Thanks also to The Laura Centre and Epilepsy Bereaved, who have been a lifeline.

Author Information

Maxine Linnell trained as a psychotherapist and later gained at distinction in the Nottingham Trent University MA in Creative Writing. She lives in Leicester where she chairs Leicester Writers Club, an organisation of published writers. Her first novel,
Vintage
, was also published by Five Leaves.

Me 

Monday. I come home after a crap day at school. I let myself in through the side door and go through the alleyway we share with Mrs. Thing next door. It's cool and dark and smells damp. As I come out into the sunshine in the back garden I can hear them. Rowing. My mum and dad. 

I can see them through the open kitchen window. Dad's sitting at the kitchen table with his back to me, and I can just see Mum standing with her back to the cooker. Mum's voice is loud, on the way to top volume. 

“I come home early for a change, and you've done nothing. The breakfast stuff's still not cleared off the bloody table, for heaven's sake. And you said you'd do the shopping. I left you a list, look!” 

I open the back door carefully and go into the hall. Only words so far, there's no plates flying or anything interesting. I hang around to listen. 

The kitchen door is shut. That's a bad sign. I'm trying to work out what stage the row's at. Sometimes I can do an early intervention. I can go in the kitchen like nothing's happening and talk about my day and ask for some money. They'll gawp at me and Mum will tell me I've only had my allowance since Saturday and what the hell have I spent it all on. Then they might forget the row. 

But this one's has been going on for a while. I take off my trainers and drop them, clunk, clunk, on the wooden floor, then wait for a reaction. It doesn't come. 

“I don't care about that. Go out and get a job!” 

Her sentences get shorter and louder. And his get longer, but low and too quiet to hear. 

“Any job. It doesn't matter. Just get out there!” 

She'll scream, then cry, then he'll hug her. Then they used to go up in their bedroom and do something disgusting you shouldn't know about your own parents, but you could hear it even if you tried not to. Especially me, in the room across the landing from theirs. 

But the part in the bedroom hasn't happened in the last few weeks. Now, after the crying she acts distant and cold and won't talk, and dad looks tortured. Silences and explosions. I'd rather have the rows. At least you know they'll be over soon. But I don't have any choice. I'm only a kid round here. 

I walk past the kitchen door, making enough noise to be sure they'll hear me and feel guilty. George is in the front room. He's nearly nine, the littlest. 

“Plugged into the machine, are you Georgy?” 

He's on the play station and his whole body's focussed. He doesn't look up. 

“Don't call me Georgy. I'm Geo!” 

“That's a girl's name. There's someone in my class called Jo. Short for Josephine.” It's not true, but it'll wind him up. 

His eyes don't leave the screen, not even a flicker. 

“Ge-o, scumbag. Get it?” 

“Okay, little bro. Don't stress. Mum and Dad at it again?” 

He shrugs his shoulders. “Yeah, suppose.” 

I grin at him and go past the back room, the room that was Dad's darkroom before he went digital and my art room and the only junk room in the house. All the old, shadowy things settle in there. It's the last hiding place from Mum's makeovers and declutters. I head up the stairs on the new blue carpet, spongy, with that chemical smell. 

Hannah's door is half open, and she's lying on her bed in a baggy grey sweatshirt and black jeans. She's reading a book and you can't see her face for hair. I've almost forgotten what she looks like. She's finished her exams now and she's moping, waiting for the results. She was soaking up all the attention, so I'm glad it's all over. 

She's eating as usual. Her jaws must get tired, or maybe she doesn't bother to chew. 

“Mel. I can see you! Always hanging about behind doors.” She doesn't like being looked at. 

“A-mazing! You can see me from behind all that frizz! Not finished your breakfast yet?” 

She mumbles something and I head on to the bathroom to have a look in the mirror. I had a sandwich at lunch, it's sure to show. My stomach looks huge. I'll never get into the size eights. Go in my room, shut the door behind me and lean back on it. Peace. 

Then I hear them still going on through the floor. The kitchen's right under my room at the back of the house. Mum's on top volume now. 

“You haven't had a contract for months!” 

There's Dad's voice in between, a low murmur I can't catch. 

“Fashion photographer! What kind of job's that? I'm working all hours in that bloody school! You go off for weeks, then you come back with new clothes and a tan and I'm exhausted! And I've no idea who you've been with, what bit of skirt you've picked up along the way. At least you could have the decency not to look so pleased with yourself when you get home!” 

His calm voice goes on for ages now. 

“You're a waste of space, Steve, that's all you'll ever be! I don't know why I married you!” 

Mum is so emotional. And she's the oldest, much older than Dad. I thought it was people my age who were supposed to be emotional. Why can't she grow up? 

I put on some volume of my own, loud enough to drown them out. The music powers out of the speakers. It is hot, there's no air in here. I open the window. I love my room, it's so empty, no clutter. There's my bed, under the window with an orange duvet, my wardrobe, a desk with drawers, my netbook and the TV. And a shelf for my books. Nothing's out of place. Next job is clearing out the stuff I had when I was a kid, still in boxes under the bed. Hannah sneers at me for being a little housewife. But I feel good in here. I don't care what she thinks. She's such an old cow. 

I wish Raj would text. I texted him at four o'clock, but he hasn't replied yet. Do I have to wear a huge badge saying “I fancy you”? Chloe's out of contact too. I play with the mobile for a bit, then throw it down on the bed. I could turn it off, see if I care. That would show her. She's got such a brilliant life, she doesn't need me. But I know I won't do that. I lie on my back and look at the ceiling. There's marks there where I threw up an old tennis ball to bounce off the ceiling until Mum shouted at me. I count the marks, make faces out of the shapes. 

When I think about it, I'm the only sane one in this family. I don't get on with any of them, except Dad. Mum says it's like having four kids in the house instead of three. Dad and me, we get on great. We're close, really close. He even likes my music. I wonder if he likes this track. Must be able to hear it down there, with the beat and everything. I love it when Dad's around. 

On top of the music I hear the scrape of a chair on the kitchen floor and then a few seconds later the front door slams and I know he's gone.

Me and Chloe 

Tuesday and it's still hot. I meet Chloe at the school gates and she's looking stressed, like she's lost something. Chloe's my best friend. We've hung out together since the first day at secondary. I was the only one from my primary school, and so was Chloe, from hers. Mrs. Fisher had the bright idea of putting us together. 

I didn't think much of her to look at. She was in the wrong clothes. Nothing was new, and not like the school list everyone had. I was wearing all the new uniform and stuff, and carrying this huge new bag, and I was sweating in the scarf and the jacket. 

Chloe never cared about anything like that. She grinned at me. 

“What's your name, flower?” 

And that was it, friends. I told her I was Melody, not Melanie like everyone thought, and she said best to tell people I was Mel, and she dragged the jacket and the scarf off me and stuffed them into the new bag before I could tell her not to. I could breathe. 

“What are you smiling at?” she says now, interrupting me in the middle of remembering. 

“I'm thinking about when we got to this place on the first day, and we were the only ones on our own.” 

“Yeah, I got stuck with you,” she says, smiling so I know she doesn't mean it. “Do you ever wish you were somebody else?” We're heading into school now, everyone like this big swarm of bees buzzing in one direction. Inside the building we all split into different streams, Chloe and me up the main stairs. 

She doesn't want me to answer, I can tell because I know her so well even though there's things I couldn't even tell her, private things. But I know what I'm thinking: I'm wishing I was her. 

“Sometimes, I wish I had your family instead of mine,” says Chloe, breaking into my thoughts. 

I'm so shocked I stop in the middle of the stairs and everyone has to flow round me. 

“You want to be in my family?” 

“Your house is so sorted and tidy, and your Dad's really interesting and cool. George is okay even if he does live on Planet Zog, and at least Hannah's quiet.” 

I'm listening to this like I'm hearing about people I've never met. I head on up the stairs and Chloe follows. 

“You're crazy,” I say. “Your family's cool. You're all kind of mixed up together and nobody shuts their doors and your mum and dad are really friendly, like they even enjoy being with each other and all that.” 

“Whose family are you talking about?” Chloe says. We're in the classroom now and she slings her bag on her desk, and pens and papers and rubbish spill out but she doesn't seem to notice. She turns her back on the mess and folds her arms. “I can't stand them. There's no space, I can't breathe.” 

“Let's swap,” I say. “Do you think they'd notice?” 

“Hmm, not sure.” Chloe looks me up and down and I copy how she's standing with her arms folded tight and her face scrunched up. 

“Do I look like you?” I say, and she has to laugh. 

I've often thought I'd like to be in Chloe's family instead of mine, and right now I'd be seriously happy to join Chloe's family. But I wouldn't want her to find out what mine's really like, not in a zillion years, even though I don't know what it's like myself right now. Confused or what? Right. 

I can't stand any of them. Except for Dad. He's the only one who understands. 

“Come over to mine for tea tomorrow,” says Chloe. “At least they'll behave with you around. Mum's going to cut my hair, she promised.” 

“Right. Do you think she'd do mine?” 

“My mum would cut the gerbil's hair if it stood still long enough. Not that you look like a gerbil. She'd love to get her hands on yours. Give it a trim.” 

“No, I mean cut it.” I pull my long dark hair right up and act like I'm cutting it all off. Chloe's eyes go wide. 

“Do you mean it?” 

“Don't know, I'll see. What do you think?” 

It's something I've thought about for ages. I want to do it, but I'm scared. Not just about how it might look, though I don't really know. But I know Dad will hate it, he says he loves my hair long. And Mum won't let me have anything done without a huge discussion and the third degree and saying what if you don't like it, and don't come running to me when it goes wrong. I don't really know why I want it short, but I'm that fed up of doing what everyone else wants. 

Raj is important though. I've found out he likes girls with short hair. I pointed out a girl on the park with it cropped, and asked him if she was good-looking, and he laughed and said she was all right. 

Chloe looks at me one way and the other, studying the possibilities. 

“Cool,” she says, and the bell rings for class.

Me and Dad 

It's the end of the day and I swing my bag over my shoulder and I'm ready to go. If I see Raj in the park I'm planning to wander in as if I want to smell the flowers or something. We're all streaming out of the gates like it's paradise out there, which it's not. But at the end of a school day it feels like paradise, for a minute or two. 

Chloe's telling a joke about Mr. Donkin, our maths teacher. She's not so stressed out now – she never is for long. I turn at the gate and I see Dad leaning on the railings at the other side of the road looking out for me. He's got his tight leather jacket on and the tight faded jeans and the iPod he bought in New York, and his hair's longish and fair like he dyed it but it's real, and I can see people are looking at him thinking he's cool, and he seems like a stranger because my friends are looking at him wondering who he is. He doesn't look like a normal dad, that's for sure. 

I swerve away across the road and he opens his arms to me and hugs me close, then lets me go and holds my shoulders and looks at me. 

“Sweetheart! So this is where you hang out all day when you're away!” He's fooling about as usual, and I'm embarrassed because it's so public. 

“What're you doing here, Dad? Something wrong?” 

“I wanted to see my little girl, that's all. Thought I'd come along and meet you, like the old days when you were small.” Funny, I don't remember him doing that. 

“You been rowing with Mum again?” 

He looks sad for a second then the smile breaks out. 

“Me and your Mum, we've got an understanding. Yeah, we row, but I'll make it up to her, you'll see. I've got a great surprise planned for her birthday.” 

“But her birthday's weeks away, in August.” 

“Nothing like planning ahead. Come on, let's walk the long way by the shops, I'll tell you all about it.” 

I'm walking with him even though I don't think I want to. It's not what I planned. I catch sight of Raj across the road, one of the crowd still flooding out of the gates. He's talking to a girl in his year. I want to run over and grab his attention, but he's gone before I can wave. I'll have to text him later. 

“But I've got homework to do, before tomorrow.” 

“Never mind that, you can do it when you get home. I'll help you.” 

I have to smile. He'd never be able to concentrate, let alone understand the project. He'd be clowning around making stupid suggestions, anything to avoid getting down to work. George would be better at helping than Dad, even though he's still only eight. 

I link arms with him, match his pace as much as I can. 

“What was it like when you were at school, Dad?” 

“School? I had a great time. Me and the others started a band, and we used to play in the music department every lunch-time. I was lead guitar, and I did some of the vocals.” 

He demonstrates and I'm supposed to laugh but I'm not put off. 

“I mean your schoolwork, exams and that.” 

“Exams. Not my best subject, sweetheart. Never did do well in the exams department. I was always too busy with other things, making films, playing music. But look, I've not done badly for myself, have I? Got you three, and I can talk to you like a mate. There's your mum to keep it all going. And I'm a good photographer. I think there's a future for me.” 

“Dad, you haven't worked for months. You jump every time the phone rings.” 

His face falls. “Now you're sounding like your mother. Don't give me a lecture, I have enough of those.” He hangs his arm round my shoulder and we walk. I have to stride out to keep up with him, and we walk on, away from home, away from the coursework, away from Raj.

Granma 

On the way home I'm trying to get Dad to hurry. He's kept me out for over an hour, shopping, doing what Mum asked him to do yesterday. He's forgotten the list, so he has to try and remember, and I'm following him round Morrisons with a trolley while he lobs in tins of tomatoes and stuff. He's telling me about his plans to make Mum a wonderful dinner for her birthday and the menu. I love talking about cooking, I even like doing it, so long as they don't make me eat the food. 

We pile the stuff on the conveyer belt, and Dad flirts with the checkout cashier who must be sixty at least while I fill the carriers. He pays with his card and we share out the bags. We head towards home. 

It's nearly five. Mum will be mad. 

Raj phones as we get towards our turnoff. Our road's called Knighton Fields Road East. It takes hours to write, must be the longest road name in the universe. 

“What's up, Raj?” 

“Where are you?” Raj sounds strange, distant. 

“I'm walking down Welford Road with my dad.” 

“Your dad?” 

“Yeah, he came and picked me up after school.” 

“Is that your dad? I thought…” 

“What?” 

“No worries, it's cool. See you later.” I hang up. I can't work out what it is but he still sounds strange. 

“That your boyfriend then?” Dad asks lightly. 

“Raj? No, he's not my boyfriend.” I so wish he was, but I'm not letting Dad in on that. Raj has never tried to kiss me or anything. I know he's a bit interested, the way we don't look each other in the eye or anything. But he'll never go for me until I get to a size eight. Don't ask me how I know, I just know. 

We let ourselves in through the new front door, painted a shiny blue so you can almost see yourself in it. Our house stands out from all the others on this road. That's the way Mum wants it. She's in the hall with the phone in her hand. 

“Where've you been, I've been worried sick. The hospital phoned. We need to go to the General to see Granma.” 

I'll never get the coursework done at this rate. 

“Do we all have to go?” I say, but looking at Mum I know the answer so I wish I hadn't. She's stressed out, she won't listen. 

I hate going to see Granma. She's been ill for ages and she doesn't know anyone now, so I don't see the point. A few weeks ago the nursing home she lived in said they couldn't take care of her any longer. I heard Dad on the speakerphone. He shouted at the matron, but she said she wasn't prepared to listen to abuse. It was so embarrassing. 

Now Granma's been in the General for a while. Dad goes every Sunday to see her on the bus, and he comes back really quiet. 

“Yes Mel, we do have to. She's your granma, and she's dying. It may be the last time.” Mum is serious, but I know she's never liked Granma, ever since she met Dad. From what she said, Granma didn't think Mum was good enough for her only son. Especially as Mum already had Hannah and me. Granma thought she was too old for him too, and that didn't go down well with Mum. There were loads of rows, and Dad said he was even more fixed on being with Mum because of what Granma thought. So for months he didn't speak to Granma, until George was born and they made it up. 

“Could you get changed, Mel. Put on something suitable.” I go upstairs really slowly, and I look in my wardrobe for what to wear. I don't know what's suitable to see somebody who's dying. I'd like to wear all black with my black trainers, but black would look like I wished she was dead already, which I sort of do because it's dragging on and on, but I know I can't show that. The way I see it, there isn't much point in going on taking up a bed in the hospital when all you do is lie there. But those are things I can't say. I have to make out I'm bothered even though Granma never bothered about me, or about Hannah, because we weren't her real grandchildren like George. I settle on my faded black jeans and flipflops and a skimpy blue top I like. When I go down Mum looks at me and sighs but doesn't say anything so I suppose it's all right. 

George is looking scrubbed with his hair combed back for once. Hannah looks like I feel, like she's doing something she hates. Mum and Dad are uncomfortable, you can tell. She's still got her work suit on, and he's got his hair combed back like George. 

We get in the car and there's the row about who sits in the middle of the back seat. We haven't all been in the car together for ages. I don't remember when we stopped doing that. 

“You go in the middle, Mel, you're really skinny,” says George, chewing his gum. 

“No, you, you're the littlest.” 

“Don't put George next to me,” says Hannah. “The smell of that gum makes me sick. You don't want me to be sick in the car, do you?” 

Mum sighs again. “Leave it out, you three. Negotiate.” 

So we negotiate it's me who goes in the middle on the way and George on the way back, which is fair I suppose as long as he sticks to it. Hannah and George look out of the windows all the way there and I listen to Mum and Dad talking in the front. Mum's driving. 

“I know she's your mother, Steve, but she never accepted me,” says Mum. She's not keen on going to the hospital either. 

“You know, I've never been able to ask her about when I was young. I'd just like to ask her if she knew. About Grandad.” 

I lean forward to hear. 

“It's too late now to bring all that up,” Mum says, taking a quick look behind at us. 

“I can't help thinking about it, now she's dying.” 

I can't stop myself. “What about Grandad?” 

It's Mum who speaks. 

“Grandad wasn't very nice to Dad when he was growing up.” 

It's so annoying, I mean when adults talk to you like you were three years old and you don't know anything. 

“What do you mean? Did he hit you, Dad?” I don't remember Grandad, he died when I was small. There's a photo of him in the front room with Granma when Dad was small. Granma's holding this baby that's going to be Dad in her arms and smiling at him, and Grandad's looking at the camera, wearing his army uniform and huge boots. He's really tall and thin and she's short and fat, he's squinting at the sun so he looks angry or something. They were really old when they had him. Gross. 

I want Dad to answer, but he looks out of the side window and acts like he hasn't heard me ask him about Grandad. Mum looks at me in the mirror and goes, “Shh! Not now Mel, please. I need to concentrate on driving.” 

I give up. It's quiet again and we stop in the car park. We climb out of the car and find Ward 10. It's like going into a TV set. Big windows, ceiling high enough for two floors, metal beds in rows along each wall and a nurses' station in the middle so they can keep an eye on everybody dying. They're all dying in this ward, or they look as if they'll be dying soon. It's like a premature graveyard in here. 

Everything's grey or white, the walls, the beds, even the people. There's a huge TV with
Eastenders
 and no sound on and nobody's watching. There are a few relatives looking bored sitting by beds. They all look up when we come in and you can see we're the most interesting thing happening round here, and I feel embarrassed walking in. Most of the visitors look old themselves, like they'll be the next ones in the beds when this lot die. Maybe they're not visitors, they're queuing up. I wish Chloe was here, I could tell her that and we could have a laugh. 

There's one bed with curtains round it, and Dad heads towards it. It must be Granma's. 

George is taking a scientific interest. “Why's she got the curtains shut? Does that mean she'll be dead soon?” 

Dad pulls one curtain back and there's a little hump in the middle of the white bed that's Granma, her face peeping out at the top, hunched up on her side. Her bed is like a cot with sides so she doesn't fall out. Her head looks too big for her body, like those pictures of foetuses in the pregnancy book in the school library. Only she's not being born, she's dying. She's not looking at any of us, even though her eyes are open and her mouth is moving. 

“Mam. It's us, Steve and Ali and the kids, your grandchildren come to say hello. How are you doing, Mam?” Dad is sounding desperate, he's shouting so there's a chance she'll hear him. I bet everybody else in the ward can hear him. But you can see she's miles away. She's not here anymore. We've not come to say hello, it's goodbye. 

“Mel, get some more chairs would you?” Mum sits down on the high-backed old people's chair, and I see a stack of chairs down the other end of the ward. 

I'm heading off there when a nurse comes up and asks me what I'm doing. I'd like to say I'm going round taking people's purses and false teeth from their lockers but I don't. 

I wonder what it's like to be a nurse. If I was a nurse I wouldn't want to work in here, I'd want to be in intensive care or something. I wouldn't be a nurse anyway, I'd be a doctor. Wonder which A's you need to be a doctor. Don't suppose you can do art. 

I mutter something about chairs and the nurse tells me to go and get them quietly because this is a hospital and I want to say I hadn't realised, I thought it was Tesco's. This is not turning out well. 

I lug three chairs up the ward by myself. The cot side is down and Hannah is sitting on the bed holding Granma's hand and crying under her hair so she can't help me. She is such a show-off, I can't believe it. George is looking at all the gadgets and oxygen and alarm buttons and things at the top of Granma's bed, so it's only Dad and me who need the chairs. I end up at the bottom of the bed, miles away from Granma. We're all arranged round this body but Granma couldn't care less, she doesn't even know we exist. I wonder if she knows she exists herself, but thinking about that does my head in. 

We sit there for a while but Granma doesn't say anything or move, except for her mouth which is kind of chewing but she's not eating anything. There's a plastic beaker like a baby's feeding cup on her table with cold tea in it and Mum tries to give her some but it dribbles down her chin and Mum puts it back on the table. It's dead quiet. Nobody knows what to say. You can't chat about the weather or the football or anything, not that I'm interested. Dad stands up and gives Granma a kiss on her cheek, not like he really cares or anything. 

“There's nothing we can do here. Let's go home.” 

He sounds really sad and I hold his arm and Hannah gives me a look like she's sorry for me. Bet she's only jealous. 

“But Dad, we've only just got here,” says George who's interested in the machines and is working out how to use the radio and the headphones. Or at least that's what I think they are. They could be the life support system for all I know. 

Dad heads off down the ward and we all get up to follow him. Mum puts her arm round Hannah, who's still crying, and leads her gently towards the door. George drops the headphones and runs after them. 

“Take back those chairs,” says Mum, turning back to me. I don't see why it's my job when nobody else fetched chairs, but I do it anyway. The nurse is there again watching that I put them back properly and I wonder why she's got nothing better to do than look at me like I don't belong visiting, when hospitals are meant to be there for people like Granma and us. I realise I haven't said anything to Granma and on the way back I go to her bed for a last time and have a good look at her, and she isn't moving her mouth any more. She's fallen asleep, and her eyes are closed. For a minute I think she's dead, but you can still see her breathing. 

I make myself take in her wrinkled face and the hair, short and white and thin so you can see her scalp through it, and her arm on top of the sheet, skin on top of bone so you can see the elbow joint, and her hand's a claw gripping nothing. And I smell her old person smell and disinfectant and wee and hear the sounds of the relatives and the tea trolley coming to take away the tea she'll never drink, and I wonder about how it will be when I'm old and can't do anything and I'm going to die. 

“Bye, Granma,” I say, and my voice sounds funny and I realise she won't be able to hear me. I force myself to pick up her scraggy hand. It's really light and cool, and I can feel the bones underneath the wrinkly skin. Then I put it back down on the sheet and make myself turn away from her. The last thing I hear is her catching her breath and making a little noise in her throat. I pull back the curtain and go on down the ward to catch the others up. That nurse is still looking and I think about sticking my tongue out at her but I decide not to give her the satisfaction of thinking she's right about me and the whole teenage race, and instead I do my best sexy walk all the way down the ward, but I don't think she notices and I feel all wrong. 

Dad has gone in to talk to the sister on the ward, and they're in the office for a while and we stand and read the notices on the board and look at the leaflets about diabetes and incontinence and then Dad comes out. 

“Let's go. They don't know how long she'll take.” 

He's cold and cut off and we trail after him to the car park. George kicks up about going in the middle so I give him a push and he shrieks and gets in and I look out of the window with my MP3 on loud all the way home. 

When we go past the park I see Raj up there with his mates playing football and I ask Mum to stop and let me out so I can go for a walk. She tells me not to be late and I head off into the park, glad to be seeing Raj and to be free for a while.

Me and Raj 

“Hi.” I'm a bit shy round all Raj's mates. They're older, and they're mostly Asian so they are different, but we've known each other all through school so it's kind of different in a way you know really well. 

“Hey,” Raj runs off the pitch and he's smiling at me and I feel better. He's tall, skinny in a good way, fit, and his face opens up when he smiles. “Where've you been?” 

“Visiting my granma in the General. She's ancient and they think she'll die soon.” 

“Wow. Bet you'll miss her. I'd really miss my gran if she died.” 

“Yeah, well, she lives with you. Granma's lived in a home for ages. And I don't know, it doesn't feel good with her. She's never liked Mum, or us. Didn't approve or something. Whatever I did it was wrong. Now she doesn't know who we are so it doesn't matter.” 

“Wow.” Sometimes I think Raj must think we're really strange. His family sounds close, and there's loads of cousins and everything, and they have these huge parties. And sometimes I feel jealous of him about all that when it's just me and Mum and Dad and Hannah and George and we don't act like we're a family, and we don't have anyone round or anything. 

It's not Granma I'm sad about, it's me, us. Seeing her in the hospital, I saw we were all going to die. Not that I didn't know that, but I knew it differently. Different from when the gerbil died when I was seven and I thought it would come alive again next day. It feels like I'm sad about life, about death, about the whole stupid thing. I mean, why live when you know you're going to die? 

“Hey, I have to get back to the game. You going to hang around till we finish?” 

“No, I have to go home.” 

“See you then.” He's running off to the pitch and I watch him and think about one day he's going to die and my eyes go all swimmy so he's blurred and he's running and I turn away and wipe my eyes. I break into a run myself and I'm slamming my feet down on the pavement and pushing myself to go on and on till I'm nearly home and I'm sweating and breathing hard and I know, I know I'm alive. 

I get home and Mum's there on her own, looking like there's a funeral going on already. 

“Somebody died?” I say, just for a laugh. 

“Granma,” says Mum and I feel so embarrassed. I never thought she would die so soon, and it's weird to think of her just a couple of hours ago in the hospital. And I was the last one in the family to see her alive. Maybe that funny breath was the last one. I go all shivery and cold inside. Mum sighs and bangs the kettle on. 

“Your dad's gone down there.” 

I get a glass of water and go up to bed. I think about Granma, and me and Raj.

Me and Chloe 

I'm under the duvet and my mobile goes. It's Chloe. 

“Where've you been?” 

“Up the General. My granma's died.” 

“Did you see her die?” 

“I was the last – I saw her take this funny breath.” 

“You okay?” 

“Yeah. It's a pain. Haven't got my project done or anything.” 

“You are so rubbish. Here I've been sweating over a hot essay and you're out having a life.” 

“You've done it?” 

“Yeah – Dad helped. But it was me in the end.” 

“Y'know, my dad offered to help – that's a first. Not that he could. He was rubbish at school.” 

“You dad is so cool. Not like a dad.” 

I'm looking at my fingernails, wondering if I need some new varnish, and Dad walks in. 

He stops when he sees I'm on the phone. 

“Yeah.” I turn away from him. I feel bad about it, but I need some space right now, from all this death and stuff. 

I hear him close the door after him as he leaves. I snuggle down under the duvet. 

“So, tell me, how's everything with Raj?” 

“Chloe, it's nothing, really!” 

“You are such a bad liar, d'you know that? I know you're all loved up over him.”

“Yeah well, you just keep on knowing and I'll do whatever I'm doing. How about you?” 

“Me and Lan, we're going out on Friday – pictures or something.” 

“Cool.” 

“But there's something going on at home, Mel.” 

“What do you mean?” 

Her voice gets quieter, like she's making sure nobody hears. “I don't know, I've just got a feeling.” 

“What kind of feeling?” 

“It's like there's a secret somewhere, like people aren't saying it.” 

Dad puts his head round the door again, mimes blah blah blah at me. 

“Look, I've got to go, right? See you tomorrow.” 

“See you.” 

“And hey…” 

“What?” 

“Don't worry.” 

I sigh and turn to Dad.

Me 

“Mum, I feel sick.” 

I almost begin to believe it, feel my stomach heaving. A vague frown passes over her face, like she's not sure. 

“Again? We'll have to get you to the doctor's.” 

“No, it's just a bug. Everyone at school's got it.” 

“Are you sure you're really ill? You're not feeling sad about Granma?” 

“No. Yes. Yes I'm feeling sad.” But I'm not. Granma's just an empty space inside me. 

“Do you think you'd better stay at home today, love?” 

“I really want to be at school, we've got French.” Like I'd want to go to French. If it was art today I'd be there, even if I was throwing up all over the place. 

She looks at her watch. “No, I think you should stay. You need to take care of yourself.” 

That makes her a good mum, does it? She doesn't think of having a day off work to look after somebody sick in her family. She cares more about the brats in her school than she does about me. I'm not important enough. Not that I'd want her around anyway. 

“Suppose.” I try to sound disappointed. Hannah gave me a look, like she's disgusted. As if I'd care what Hannah thinks. She can go off to her special course at uni. Wish she was going somewhere else, not staying at home like Dad wants her to. 

Now everyone's gone. The house is so quiet. Dad escaped first, giving me a quick grin as he left. He's going off to sort out the death certificate and all that. Then Hannah, then George with Mum, fussing as usual. 

A carrot, an apple, a small pot of fat-free strawberry yogurt. 

I line them up on the kitchen table, leaving a space so they don't look like some crappy still life in art. Then I move the apple: it looks better that way, don't ask me why. Sit and stare at them for a while. 

“You'll be all right, Mel? You look pale. I'll phone school when I get to work. You make sure you eat something, okay?” 

“Yeah Mum, whatever.” 

Carrot, apple, small pot of yogurt. 

This house feels like a dead body. It used to be Granma's and Grandad's of course, so maybe that's right. Perhaps houses have feelings too. I go in the living room and turn the TV on, loud, louder. Dad brought pizza back from the take-away last night, and the box is still on the floor, and the blinds are down. The smell makes me feel sick, I open the blinds and the windows to let the smell out and the sun streams in. I take the rubbish in the kitchen and put it in the bin and I wash the oil and tomato and garlic stink off my hands with loads of soap. 

I'm not really ill, Mum must know that. 

I text Chloe to say not to wait for me. Wish I could tell her about all this but I don't think I can tell anyone. She might understand, and her family too. Go upstairs, avoiding myself in the landing mirror. I see the fat though, on the way past. Must have put on something. 

Head for the scales in the bathroom. No sign of an extra pound, but I had jeans on yesterday, which adds something. So I should be lighter today. Blink this time when I see the mirror so I don't have to look at the flab. 

I get to the end of the landing, my bedroom, then stop at the door and look. In Chloe's bedroom you have to search for a bit of floor to stand on. Everything's covered in clothes and magazines and old makeup and plates and mugs. Mine's mostly empty. 

I catch sight of Mum and Dad's bed in their room opposite, not made, like they just got up, duvet all over the place. I shut their door, who wants to look at that mess in the morning? And that smell. 

Pull my door to. Head for the front room again, sit and watch the blah but can't focus. I should have gone to school, this is no good. 

The place I go to in my head, nobody can get me. There's a sound like a washing machine churning round the clothes. It drowns out the voices. Everything seems far away, faded. People look like they're in a movie with the sound turned off. They look mad, all of them. It's like seeing through some of those special lenses Dad has for the cameras. They can't touch me in here. It's good, it's the best. I can hang out in here for hours. Books are good too, the ones you can't stop reading, you don't read every word because you can't wait to know what happens next. Except when they finish. TV works sometimes, not often. Not now.