Split Second

Bound together by the devastating consequences of a terrorist attack, teenagers Charlotte and Nat appear to have much in common. But, as Charlie gets closer to Nat, she wonders if perhaps he knows more about the attack than he is letting on...

First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd
A CBS company. Copyright © Rosefire Limited 2013.

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2. Charlie

Mum shook her head. She reached out to smooth a curl off my face. I backed away, furious.
‘Come on, sweetheart, we’ve been over the reasons,’ she said, lowering her voice.
‘It’s just a tattoo,’ I insisted. ‘I’m not going to get anything outrageous. Or big. Maybe a butterfly, or that yin-yang symbol thing.’
Mum pursed her lips and shook her head again. ‘You don’t even know what that symbol means, Lottie.’
‘Don’t call me that,’ I snapped. ‘You said I could choose what I did with my money. I’ve been saving for ages.’
Mum sighed. I turned away, so angry I wanted to scream.
It wasn’t just the tattoo or Mum using her old name for me. It was everything: all the ways that Mum tried to stop me growing up. Dad died when I was very small and Mum and I had been on our own for years. This was great when I was little and had all her attention. But I would be sixteen in a few months and she needed to let me make my own decisions.

‘As I’ve already explained . . .’ Mum said with another sigh. ‘You can’t have a tattoo because it’s permanent – you’re basically mutilating yourself for life. And it’s a waste of money we don’t have.’
‘It’s half price here,’ I hissed. I know I sounded like a spoilt brat but I was so fed up of us having to count every penny, every day. On my last birthday we hadn’t even had a proper cake. ‘And it’s just a fashion thing. I’m not going to have one anywhere obvious. Maybe on my shoulder or—’
‘And it’s painful,’ Mum added. ‘It will really hurt.’
‘So what?’ I said. ‘Childbirth’s painful. That’s what you always say. But you put up with that. I can—’
‘Childbirth was worth it,’ Mum said. ‘A tattoo isn’t. Come on, love, there are lots of better things you could do with that money. A tattoo isn’t exactly a practical choice.’
Please, Mum?’ Tears sprang into my eyes. Just a few years ago, when Mum still had a job, before her war widow’s pension was stopped in the government cuts, there had been plenty of money for impractical things. Mum reached for my arm. Her hands were red and rough from her part-time work at the factory. She worked nights but had got up this morning to come to the market for the free food bags. Her face was lined and worn. Once she had used eye make-up and nail varnish. Now she looked old and dowdy.
Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed the Asian woman running the tattoo stall watching us. She saw me looking and turned back to the TV where the Mayor of London was speaking direct to camera – another appeal for support for the austerity cuts. I was filled with loathing at the sight of his fat face and sleek, dark hair. He looked like an overfed rat. Just like the last Mayor – and the past two Prime Ministers – he kept telling the country that we were ‘all in it together’, that more cuts were necessary.
I turned back to Mum. It was obvious from her expression that she wasn’t going to change her mind.
‘I hate you.’ The words shot out of me. I wish I could say that I didn’t really mean them, but in that moment I did.
Mum fixed me with an unhappy look. I’ve often thought back to that moment, the last time I saw her properly. In my memory I can still hear the drone of the Mayor of London’s voice behind us, but what I remember most is Mum’s expression: part disappointment, part hurt, part weariness.
‘I’m sorry, Charlie,’ she said, her voice low and even. ‘You can have a tattoo when you’re eighteen, when you’re free to make your own decisions. But as long as I’m responsible for you it’s not going to happen.’ She paused. We were still looking at each other. I remember the slant of her eyes, just like my own; the curve of her lips, pressed together. ‘Now, let’s go down to the free food stall. There’s already a queue and the meat always runs out fast. I was hoping they might have some lamb. We haven’t had that for ages.’
‘We haven’t had anything for ages.’
Mum bit her lip. ‘I know, but—’
‘I’m not coming.’ I folded my arms. I knew I was being childish but I couldn’t stop myself. I was too hurt, too angry. ‘I’m going to look at the clothes stalls.’
‘Okay,’ Mum said. ‘I’ll come and find you when I’m done. Don’t go far. And don’t buy anything until I get back.’
She walked away. Her coat – long and leaf green – swung around her as she headed to the Future Party’s stall where a large crowd of people was already queuing for the free food bags that were handed out every Saturday. A second later Mum disappeared into the crowd.
I glanced over at the tattoo woman. She was still watching the TV. The Future Party’s leader, Roman Riley, was speaking now, his handsome face alive with conviction.
‘Youth unemployment is now running at sixty percent and
the Government has the audacity to—’

I moved away. I wasn’t interested in politicians and their talk, though at least Roman Riley’s party organised handouts. The Government only ever took things away.
Still furious with Mum, I wandered to the far corner of the market, idly looking at a rack of cheap jumpers, then a big display of discounted jackets. They were all hideous. I sighed. Mum wanted me to wait nearby. Well, tough. I headed towards the exit, passing a stall selling African-print T-shirts, then another steaming with the scent of coconut curry. I stopped at a sign advertising free noodle soup – one person, one cup – hesitating as I wondered whether to get some.
WHAM! The blast knocked me off my feet. I slammed down hard on my back, onto the fl oor. Winded, I lay there, stunned. What was happening?
Voices rose up around me, shouts and screams. An alarm. Footsteps pounded past me as I struggled up onto my elbows. An elderly woman had been knocked over too. We stared at each other, then turned to look across the market. Smoke was pouring up above the stalls two or three aisles away.
‘What was that?’ I said.
The elderly woman was struggling to her feet. I jumped up. Mum. I raced back through the market. People were staggering past, going in the opposite direction. Thick clouds of dust swirled around us. Jackets and jumpers from the stalls I’d passed before were scattered across the floor, blackened and ripped. I headed for the section of the market where the smoke was coming from. My head throbbed. Was the explosion gas? An accident? A bomb?
‘Did you see what happened?’
‘Call an ambulance!’
‘Help me!’
People all around me were yelling. Screaming. I raced towards the smoke. I had to get back to the free food stall. Find Mum. Rubble was all around, counters from stalls splintered and on their sides, clothes and food strewn across the dirt-streaked floor. A man staggered out of the smoke, blood pouring from his face. Another man followed, holding a little boy in his arms, his jacket covered in dust, his eyes wide with shock. Two women held another up between them. More people, blocking my way. I pushed past them into the next aisle. Mum had been right there, exactly where the smoke was coming from. Terror tightened my throat. I had to find her. My eyes were watering from the thick air. It was hard to breathe. I pushed through the crowds. People were rushing past me, desperate to get out of the market. Injured people, terrified people.
I forced my way past them. The smoke was even thicker as I passed the tattoo stall. The TV was smashed on the ground, the woman from the stall bent over, groaning. I held my hand over my mouth, choking on the dust. I stumbled, unable to see anything through the smoke. I stopped for a second, trying to make myself focus. The thin, piercing alarm stopped. An announcement sounded, telling everyone to leave the market.
‘Make your way to the nearest exit. Make your way to the nearest exit.’
I headed left, towards the free food stall. A small fire was burning out of a pile of cables. Shards of plastic crunched under my feet. Everywhere was blood and dust and metal. Hell. A shoe on its side with a broken heel. A torn poster showing just one side of Roman Riley’s face above the words: Future Pa—
The smoke cleared slightly. I saw the leaf green of Mum’s coat. Her arm flung out behind her head.
And I knew.
I knew but I couldn’t face it.
‘Mum!’ I yelled, and time slowed down as I moved towards her. ‘Mum!

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