We walk together through the dark which has now fallen, our shoulders brush between steps, reminding me of her presence. Our eyes meet through the blackness, sparking awkward smiles across both our faces.
Eventually, we reach my front gate. Abi seems a little perturbed by the condition of the building.
“Is this really where you live?” she asks. I nod, a little embarrassed, but certain that she will not hate me for it. She follows me cautiously to the door, avoiding the glass that still covers the path. I check that the house is empty, which it seems to be, then lean on the door and undo the latch. I stumble in, holding the door open for Abi so that she can enter after me. I smile in apology; she is obviously used to much better.
I make my way to the kitchen to see if Dad’s brought anything home at all. As I enter the room, my foot hits something on the floor. My Dad sits up slowly, his face as confused and disturbed as always. His eyes slowly track the cracks on the wall, around to where we stand. He seems to look right through us, but slowly, realises the presence of Abi.
She grabs my hand and shuffles slightly behind me; she shakes slightly, so I try to comfort her with my falsely confident fingers, interlocking with hers. I pull her a little further behind me, hoping that Dad will do his worst to me, not her.
He stumbles across towards us, intrigued perhaps? Or inspecting? He forms words that only he and I know with strange precision.
“Who is your…” he pauses, looking at Abi again, “…friend?”
“She’s no one, don’t worry, just sleep,” I reply, hoping to end his interrogation sooner rather than later.
“Then why is she here?” He asks gently, reaching out and putting his unfeeling hand on her shoulder.
Abi glances over as he makes contact, fear growing in her eyes, desperate for him to leave her alone. I start to panic as he draws closer to her, straightening up so that he can look down at her. His jaw sets and his eyes stare, everything about him starts to tense at my silence before eventually, he snaps.
“I said: why is she here?” He screams in Abi’s face, though she doesn’t understand him. She lets out a muffled whimper as his hand starts to crush her shoulder. I have to stop it; her pleading eyes compel me to take action.
“I love her! And she loves me, that’s why she’s here.” I cry out, trying to break off his unrelenting stare before she is put through any further pain.
He turns, releasing his hold on her.
“You love…this?” He asks, spitting the words in my face. They hurt, this monster of a person judges her as worth so little, when he himself is worth nothing. I try to speak, but the words dry out in my mouth, the emptiness of my hand and the slamming of the door tell me that she is gone.
Now without a witness, he draws back his fist.
He hits me again and again. In an instant transformed from the alcoholic I know back into him. After everything that’s happened, this is what turned him back? Each hit is harder than the last, but I feel each one less. I back against the wall, curl up to protect my head and tell myself it’s just a dream.
Just a dream.
I hear the pot boil, a call from the kitchen from my mother as I drag myself down the stairs. He enters, the slamming of the door registering vaguely in my weary mind. His fist knocks into Naďa, who I hear falling back onto the cold stone floor.
The first shout comes from my mother, cut short by his palm slapping against her cheek. The scream that accompanies the slap is Naďa’s, who runs from his renewed anger and cowers beneath the oak table. Now his rage rises, throwing an empty pan to the floor. Now reaching the base of the stairs, I peek around the corner to see my mother backing away from him, her eyes wide, face pale.
“Please,” she breathes, tears beginning to fall. His reply is the back of his hand, striking her again. I hear my sister cry out, I hear myself cry out. He turns sharply, seeing me run toward him. His heavy hand throws me against the stove, knocking the cooking pot from on top.
Bright red fills my vision as searing pain burst through my left hand. A scream, but not mine, I can’t breathe. Naďa’s eyes stare at mine, terror her only emotion. A single tear rolls down her cheek, she runs, out of the door. Gone. Forever.
He doesn’t care, he just keeps shouting, forcing more hollow tears from my mother. I can’t understand what anyone is saying. A kick hits my ribs, followed by a louder sob from my mother.
“Remember, this was your fault,” he scowls and leaves.
What happens next is unfamiliar, different to every other memory of that day. My mother falls to her knees, finally breaking down completely. I fight to maintain consciousness, which I manage just barely, just long enough to hear the door open again. The man who enters is not him but my uncle. He spots me almost straight away, rushing over and inspecting my arm.
“What have you done?” he shouts at my mother. She continues sobbing. With care not to touch my hand, he lifts me into his arms, carrying me from the room. I want to protest, but I can’t, my tongue is still in shock. He opens the door with his elbow, taking me with him as he leaves. I manage to get a last look at mother, before she is gone. Forever.
Just a dream.
But every cruel blow tells me it’s more than that. I can’t keep ignoring the aching that crushes my whole body. I can’t cope with the pain anymore, so I run, I try to escape to my room. He doesn’t follow, at least for now. I start to find all my things; I dump them in my bag as quickly as I can. I block out the insane ramblings from downstairs, until I hear him trip on the broken step.
His head smashes against the door, which swings open. I grab my bag and my flute and try to get past him while he is on the floor. But his hand catches my foot, tripping me. Damn. I land on my left hand, aggravating an injury that feels far more recent than it is. His fingers are tight around my ankle, squeezing harder the harder I struggle. My flute slips from my grasp, I watch in horror as it tumbles down the stairs, I can already tell it is damaged. Eventually I lose patience and twist around to punch him in the jaw, knocking him backwards and releasing my leg. I stumble down after my flute, scooping it up and scrambling to the door.
I run, I’m not sure where I’m going, but I run. I leave behind the hell I knew as home, I abandon all I used to own. All I own is what I have in my bag; some clothes, a flute and a single coin found in Dad’s coat. I always thought I could cope without him; now it’s my chance to prove it. I’ll make sure to avoid his usual haunts as I wouldn’t want him to find me. The consequences could be serious. Instead I’ll use hidden side streets and unnoticed alleyways to make my way to the station.
The coin should be just enough for a single, one-stop trip. I don’t have a particular destination, just somewhere that isn’t here, so that’s all I need. The flute I can either sell or play to make some more money to try and get further, as far as I can.
Emerging from an obscure passageway, I see the deserted station. The lights are barely enough to see by, but it shines brightly in my eyes. For me it radiates hope, glistens with freedom and shines with uncertainty.
The ticket office is closed, so I try to use the machine, but I don’t understand it. When I reach down to check if the ticket has printed, I find one, but it is not mine. It will take me an extra two stops away, so I take it. Looking at the display behind me, I can see the next train is just five minutes away. Just five minutes. Five minutes and I’ll escape this hell for good.
“We are sorry to announce that the 22:36 has been delayed by approximately 10 minutes. Northern Rail apologises for any inconvenience caused.”
Damn. Fifteen minutes, a quarter of an hour, not too bad. I’ve been waiting for nearly four years to leave and now I’m worrying about a quarter of an hour? There’s no point, just stay awake and be patient. I can’t help but keep glancing at the clock, each second pausing, hesitating before allowing itself to be replaced.
Fourteen minutes. I spot a discarded newspaper on a bench nearby; I pick it up and start to read. A teenaged boy has gone missing in Manchester. Lucky. Someone noticed. Someone’s out there looking for him, probably all through the night. No one will notice my disappearance, the note I left in the office will more than suffice. No one will look, my Dad will return home and assume I’m in bed, when he wakes on the sofa, he will assume I am at school.
Nine minutes. I try to get interested in another article, but find my focus drifting. A raindrop hits my shoulder, the precursor to the downpour that will surely come, hopefully after the train arrives. Another drop lands in my hair, before falling to the ground. I flinch as one drop lands in my eye, making me blink rapidly for what feels like an hour.
Six minutes. Not an hour then. The rain falling on the pavement begins to fall faster, stronger, louder. The gentle patter becomes a beating drum, pounding against the unfeeling earth. Its rhythms attempting unsuccessfully to inspire my planted feet to get up and walk.
Five minutes. Back where we started. Except now I’m wet through and the chill of the wind begins to bother me. I feel my arms begin to shake, no longer insulated by my pathetic jumper. I stare at the ground and try to ignore the niggling voice in my head, telling me to go home to the warm. But my home is no warmer, so why should it make any difference?
Two minutes. The faint lights are just visible through the driving rain as the train comes around the corner. The delay obviously wasn’t as bad as expected, although I doubt anyone else would have noticed the slightly earlier than expected arrival.
The train comes to a stop; a surprised looking conductor hurries me on-board, keen for me to get out of the rain. He looks at me, shivering and soaked, before taking off his jacket and wrapping it around me. I try to smile, but I only manage to raise the corner of my mouth. He sees the ticket clutched tightly in my hand and checks it.
“Adult fare?” he asks.
I nod and reply, “I couldn-n–ʺ my stammer is worse with the shivering “–n’t work out how to change it on th-th-the mach–ʺ I stop seeing his nod, understanding me despite my shaky voice. I can’t quite tell if he’s worked out what I’m doing, but he doesn’t seem to want to interfere.
“You’d be surprised how many people say the same thing,” he says with a chuckle. He notices me staring at the floor, not replying. “Are you alright, Miss?” his question is so easy to answer, but I can’t bring myself to tell him the same lie I have told everyone. Instead I remain silent.
He seems to get the hint and leaves me in peace for the remainder of the journey. I breathe slowly, forcing out the doubting questions from my mind. Should I be doing this? Will I survive on my own? Will Dad survive by himself? I avoid considering the answers, I’m too far in to go back now, besides I can’t afford the fare.