If I had to summarise the theme of my novel, it is guilt, and grief, and how we place the blame on our shoulders.
My ideas are changing from the original idea, but a recently completed beat sheet has helped me know in what direction it is going. Sarah is a journalist, who after the death of her husband in a car crash, which kills him. The race against time, as the crash is slowly taking away her sight, she investigates the people responsible.
IN THE DARK
‘Joe . . . can I borrow your High-Speed CD?’
I push open my big brother’s door, just an inch, knowing full well he isn’t back from town yet. Mum is in the kitchen cooking spaghetti bolognaise, so won’t take any notice of me. Not that she does anyway. Most of the time we are in the far ends of a boxing ring.
I can be in and out of his room, without anyone noticing.
His room, immaculate, even the gold and silver tinsel around his picture frames match. Mum is always having a go at mine. Every single day! Why doesn’t she give it a rest? It’s my room. My personal space. If I want all my belongings on my carpet, then I should be able to. Anyway, my room’s the box room. How she thinks I’m going to keep anything tidy is beyond me!
If Mum moans about the lack of spoons in the drawer, I’m going to pack my things. Live with Sophie. At least her mum isn’t constantly on her back. I only have to breathe, and Mum has a go at me. Oh! Where her precious Joe is concerned . . . I roll my eyes at his red and black striped wallpaper.
Rushing over to his CD rack, I rifle through all of his eclectic selection. That’s just like him, keeping all the good ones out of reach. Think, Sarah think. His rucksack. Sometimes he puts the goodies in there – he likes listening to music on his way to college.
Sliding open the wooden door, of his walk-in wardrobe, nothing much is different here. A section for his t-shirts, a section for his black jeans, a section for his hoodies. All ironed, and without any creases. Imagining all the clothes I am going to fit in each section, I envisage a very different space.
I roll up the sleeve of my woollen jumper, six o’clock already!
Rifling through his belongings, I scour the section for his rucksack. The whole space smells of his aftershave. Joe’s got a girlfriend! I’ve heard him talking on that fancy mobile of his yesterday. Not that I’m privy to his conversation – he just slammed the door in my face.
There it is! In between his football scarves, and college folders. It’s heavier than usual; won’t budge. Packed in tight, every spare cupboard space used. I yank the backpack down, keeping an ear out for Mum. She’s forever telling me off for taking his stuff.
He shouldn’t keep his door unlocked then, should he?
Carefully unzipping the bag, I wrinkle my nose at the smell. Smelly gym socks. Yuck. Would it harm to change them once in a while? There is something else. What is that inside one of his socks? A soft, small bundle. Taking the rim in as little finger space as I can, I go for a closer look. It’s wrapped in plastic, but there is a pinprick hole, white powder . . .
‘Sarah! I’ve told you before not to rifle through my stuff. Shit, shit, shit! Give it back!’ His voice is no more than a whisper, but still rings in my ears.
I clutch the package to my chest, as if it is a bomb and going to explode, but duck as he makes a grab for what I now have in my hand. ‘What the bloody hell is this?’ I swipe it in front of his face.
His face is pure white, just like the drugs inside his sock.
‘Please, Sarah, don’t tell Mum.’ He snatches the package off me, ramming the lot back in his rucksack. ‘Sarah, I mean it, she’ll go mental.’
I am crying now. I’ve heard all the talks at school. How dangerous drugs are. Some are little more than sweets, the damage they cause lethal.
Not able to get the pictures, out of my mind, I close my eyes to the truth. Youth workers showed us, of the before and after pictures, of kids, my age addicted to drugs. I asked questions, but never thought they could be talking about my own brother.
I stare at his face, but he just looks like Joe. ‘Drugs, are you mad!’ I’m not shouting either. It is weird, warped secret we are sharing, and I don’t like it.
‘Keep your voice down . . . They’re not mine, I’m . . . I’m looking after them for a mate.’
‘What sort of mate does drugs!’
‘Just a mate . . .’
He’s being evasive, but the look on his face stops me from going any further. I can’t think of any friends, who would be into that vile addiction. In fact, I hadn’t seen any of his friends lately.
It’s like they fell off the grid.
‘A mate wouldn’t make you carry drugs!’ The warmth of my body rises to an intolerable level.
‘What’s going on up there?’ Mum shouts from the kitchen.
‘Sarah, shut up, please.’ he whispers, spittle formed at the sides of his lips. He hastily wiped it with the back of his hand.
He forces everything to the back of the wardrobe, pushes me out, slamming the door shut. He almost throws me on the bed. He gave me one of those, don’t tell Mum looks. In that moment, his secret is kept. We might not get along, but our unwritten rule, nobody snitches, was on full display.
‘What have you done now Sarah?’ Mum asks, her hands firmly rooted on her hips.
I want to scream at her for being so unfair, but instead sit on my hands.
‘Nothing Mum, Sarah was just in my room again, but we’ve sorted it.’ His arm coils around my shoulders. He gave that big brother grin. If Mum looks any further she would have seen it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
‘Sarah, I’ve told you before not to go in your brother’s room!’
He stares at me, his eyes wide.
‘Yea Mum . . . all sorted, I’ve apologised, honest.’
Once she left, Joe shuts the door again.
‘Promise me you’re not doing drugs,’ I whisper.
‘Of course not, look I owe someone some money, and was asked to deliver this package, to get rid of my debt like. It was only fifty quid, but I can hardly ask Dad for the money can I?’
‘How do you owe anyone money? You know Mum will give you anything you ask for.’
‘Teflon did me a favour, lost my wallet once, said he’d pay for our take-out a few times. I have to do this. He said it was a one-time offer.’
‘Can’t you go to the police?’
I feel sick, like the contents of my stomach will empty on to his Man-United bedspread. He pulled at a thread on his jumper until it snaps in his hands.
‘I’ll get arrested, cause I’ve got the drugs. Look, I’m getting rid of em tomorrow, I won’t ever do anything like this again – just don’t tell Mum.’
In The Dark
Blue and silver baubles scatter in an array of colour. Mint green tinsel comfort its brittle branches. Silver angels playing their harps carefully presents on the tips. Lights – flowing around to finish off our Christmas tree.
Although, it’s more Graham’s than mine.
My husband loves the holidays; even when he is working shifts at the prison, he always makes sure we celebrate another time. He wears Santa hats, drags me to Christmas parties, and from the first of December sings Christmas songs at the top of his lungs.
The only reason I entertain this time of year is because of him.
‘Sarah, what do you think,’ he says.
‘Looks good,’ I say.
‘I was thinking of inviting Poppy round for Christmas day, she’s on her own this year, and I think she would appreciate the company.’
‘Sounds good,’ I say.
‘Postman Pat too, we’ll invite our next-door neighbours, the more the merrier.’
‘Yea, great . . .’
I immediately return to my paperwork, which I have strewn over the glass table, in a bid to find something I can give to Richard – my editor in chief at The Mail. I’m worried for Scott. The last time I met with him, he was terrified. I shouldn’t get so involved, but he is a vulnerable fifteen-year-old. Ill-equipped to deal with those responsible for the drugs in the first place.
Another victim of The Chicken Shop Scam
He’s not just an informant, but someone who needs my help.
I can’t let him down.
Touching my shoulder, he says, bringing me out of my thoughts with a jolt. ‘What do you say we have a glass of mulled wine?’
‘No, I can’t drink tonight, Scott might ring me.’ I glimpse at my taciturn phone.
He takes a step back, goes quiet, like he’s counting to ten in his head.
‘You need to forget about work, it’s Christmas and the first time we’ve been together in months.’
‘Scott is terrified, and for good reason, you know how dangerous the drugs trade can be.’
His face loses the ability to smile, and he sits down next to me. ‘I’ve told you before, Sarah, you’re too close to this one. Ever since you met Scott, I can’t get through to you. You’re sleeping less, and don’t tell me you’re not on your computer in the early hours of the morning.’
‘I promised Richard I would get some answers.’
It’s a lie, Richard isn’t remotely concerned about how quickly I solve this, he understands working on a story is a slow process. It has taken months to persuade Scott to even admit his part in it – even then his thoughts change from day to day.
His mother, just one more person in poverty, and he thinks he can deal his way out of the estate. He doesn’t mention her in a kind way, but in another, tries his best to pull himself out of a tricky situation.
But being the errand boy isn’t the way to do it.
‘Richard, he has no family, let him do all the leg work for a change.’
‘I want to get one more bastard off the streets. Don’t you get it, I am the only person for this job because I am so close.’
Graham never pulls away, but I am stiff against his embrace.
‘I get it, I really do. I see kids like Scott every day. Lost in the prison system because they arrested the wrong guy, but you’re not sleeping, having more nightmares. Especially this time of year, Joe’s always on your mind.’
Doesn’t he get it, Joe is a permanent fixture.
My inaction at not telling Mum, the day I found his body, the police raid just days after his funeral . . . ‘I’m fine!’ I shout, tempted to push all the paper on the floor, but if I do I’ll never get things straight.
‘You’re not,’ he says, gentler this time.
I want to cry but hold the tears back. They will serve no purpose, and if I lose it, I will lose myself. Normally, our house, is my one little haven, where I am allowed to push away from the guilt. Lately though, I am wearing it like a badge of honour.
‘Graham, please don’t worry, I’m good at my job.’
‘Sarah . . . I know you are . . . but that’s not what I’m talking about. You can’t save them all.’
My mobile rings, and I instantly pick it up. ‘Scott . . . slow down . . . I can’t help if . . . Okay, I’ll meet you at the usual place,’ I say.
‘It’s nearly twelve, surely you’re not going to meet him.’
‘It’s my job Graham, I promised.’
He doesn’t argue with me, we’ve been married long enough for him to see the determination in my face. ‘Then I’m going with you.’
‘I’ll be fine on my own, besides if you’re around he won’t say anything.’
‘Then I’ll wait in the car for you . . . Sarah I’m not arguing about this. These are dangerous people you are dealing with, and it’s not the time to be alone. I might not be an investigative journalist, but I work in a prison. Even in there, you mess with the wrong people, they mess with you.’
‘Okay but stay in the car, Scott has barely begun to trust me.’
A truck stop, just on the outskirts of Slough is where I am meeting Scott. It is minutes away from the motorway. A bus ride into town. A place where we can properly talk without being overheard.
Graham is quiet in the car, but I am too.
As I walk into the restaurant, well not a restaurant exactly, but a room with twenty plastic tables and chairs. There are no tablecloths, and there is only one person serving at this time of night.
I order a coffee, two burgers and a coke.
He slaps two raw burgers on the hotplate and the blazing hot griddle sizzles. Cooking in minutes, the thin slabs of meat are placed in stale burger buns. They don’t smell appetising, but Scott will be hungry enough to eat them.
The place is empty, apart from a man in the far corner. He is scrolling on his
phone and working his way through a plate of chips. I sit at a corner table, away
from the window, and hope Graham will forgive me.