We’ve always had an open-door thing going on between the Cliff family’s house, Potter’s Lodge, and our humble abode, Kiln Cottage, which is attached to it like a big pink boil on its bum.
So, as usual, I walked across the half-bald shared lawn, kicking the puffy white head off a dandelion as I passed, and went straight in through their back door.
It was dark and quiet inside, and with five kids, two dogs, and the normal number of parents living there, that was unusual. But I knew exactly where I’d find Rocky.
In the living room the red velvet curtains were closed but I could just about see him sprawled on the rug in front of the TV. His body was limp, dressed in his summer-holiday uniform of combats and camo T-shirt, and his new number one haircut was so short his hair was like iron filings clinging magnetically to his skull. He looked like a corpse really, apart from his hands, which were alive and well and gripping the PlayStation controller.
He crashed, swore, and looked up.
‘Wassup, Joseph? Wanna race?’
My hands twitched and I obeyed. ‘OK.’
I can never resist driving games. I always beat Rocky, I always beat everyone, and I know it’s stupid, but I love winning, even against someone who plays like a blind man in boxing gloves.
‘Choose your weapon then.’
I picked up a controller and went for my favourite car, the green one with the white stripe across the bonnet.
He groaned. ‘Aw, c’mon Joseph, not that one. You know you’ll win anyway. Lemme have the best car.’
‘It’s not the vehicle, y’know. It’s what you do with it that counts. Have a motorbike. They’re faster.’
‘So how come you want the car? Tell you what, you can have it as long as you play left-handed.’
I smiled. ‘OK.’
The thing is I’m pretty good left-handed. All those evenings, waiting for mum to come back, I practised with both hands. I even tried it with my feet, and I could still just about get round the track.
We lined up. I flexed my fingers till the knuckles popped, and brushed the hair out of my eyes—I’m good, but I still need to see.
Then it was 3-2-1 and we were off.
Anything could happen while I’m playing—someone could come in, take my trainers off, cut my toenails and paint them pink, and I wouldn’t notice. At first it was the usual story. I felt like I really was driving the impossible car, not sitting in the crumbs and dog hair on the Cliffs’ saggy sofa. But then, as I approached the finishing line, coming up through the noise and the adrenalin, getting louder and stronger with every second—
It felt like she was shouting. But somehow I knew she wasn’t angry—she was excited. Really excited.
‘Shut up!’ I muttered, keeping my voice below the roar of the game. She went quiet for a few seconds, but as I drove round the final bend I knew she was still there, and I had that feeling you get when someone stands too close and you have to breathe in what they breathe out.
Then she started cheering, and I lost it. I was seconds from the finishing line but I stood up and hurled the controller across the room at the armchair. It bounced off and hit the floor, the back and the battery flying in opposite directions.
Rocky stared at me, open-mouthed. ‘What d’you do that for? You were gonna win.’
‘I just . . .’ I could feel sweat on my upper lip.
‘Y’alright, mate? You look a bit weird.’
‘Yeah, just feeling sick. It’s stuffy in here.’ I went to the curtains, pulled them open, and heaved up the bottom sash of the window. I breathed in deeply then spoke to the air in a thin whisper. ‘Happy now? Is that what you wanted? Why don’t you just go back to Flea and stop ruining my life!'