“Why are legal drugs arguably as dangerous as illegal drugs?” Iris asked, peeping at me from over the rim of a textbook.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because you are officially failing biology,” she responded immediately, throwing my test paper back in my face. “And because I’m trying to stop your precious dad from getting pissed off with you by eliminating the risk of school calling him to tell him that you are officially failing biology.”
“Right,” I said sceptically. “Can’t we do this another time? It’s supposed to be lunch break; meaning you have a break from studying.”
“Your entire day is a break from studying,” she retorted. “I’m trying to help you out. Now answer the goddamn question. Why are legal drugs arguably as dangerous as illegal drugs?”
“Because, um… because-”
“Think about it,” she instructed me, reaching into her bag for her packet of cigarettes. She laid one of them carefully down in front of me. I thought.
“Because they’re more common – easier to access – people use them more…”
She nodded. “And they make you just as screwed up.”
And yet you keeping impaling yourself with them, I thought. She was a self-destruction machine and there was not one single part of her that denied or even appeared to regret it.
“Why do you smoke them anyway?” I asked. The only kids I knew who smoked and got drunk did it in some desperate snatch at adulthood. As though holding an emptied bottle could somehow add to their years, as though filling themselves with tar could also fill them with age and power and wisdom, or something, whatever it was that they were searching for.
“I dunno,” she looked at the fag she was flicking between her fingers on the science desk and I thought that was it; I thought she’d just shrug the question off and carry on.
“I dunno; sometimes I excuse myself with the same old excuse I use for getting smashed… That I just want white-out, want to forget it all; I guess it’s like being excused from the world for a bit. But that’s not really true because the nicotine might calm you down but it never blurs life beyond comprehension. I suppose it’s something to do with the fact that I can burn something and know that it’s burning me at the same time… without feeling anything.”
God. She’d thought it all out. She wasn’t just one of those people who did it for the hell of it one day and got addicted. In a way that made it worse.
“If you really don’t want to revise at lunch, I could always come to yours’ after school.”
“Yeah, or I could always come to yours’.” I said pointedly.
“I’ve already said it’s not going to happen. Strict parents.”
“Fine. It’s not going to happen then,” I told her shortly. “I have useless parents too.”
“You damn hypocrite, you.”
I was shoe-horned into accompanying Mum to Rhayader when we next needed to replenish the food stocks although I had absolutely no desire to go anywhere near the place ever again. She’d always say that she needed our help and then would insist on carrying all the bags to the car herself which always left me wondering why on earth our attendance in Tesco’s had been necessary. The truth was that the car was uncomfortable. Mum never knew what to talk to either Bronwyn or me about. And neither Bronwyn nor I knew what we supposed to say in return. I’d be lying if I said that that Mum didn’t love us but I’d also be lying if I said that she’d ever understood us. Particularly me.
Her decision to allow me to have a relatively free rein over myself was not because she believed in freedom as much as because she didn’t believe in anything in particular. She placed her trust in good food and little else – occasionally my dad. She cared enough to see that my dad directing me with the choke of the bit had only torn my mouth at the corners but she hadn’t the sense of purpose or urgency to do anything other than let me laxly guide myself.
“You seem to have been working hard recently, Gareth,” she told me via the rear-view mirror and I twitched my eyes from my mobile and my lips into a brief acknowledgement.
“I guess,” I confirmed; she did not, after all, specify what I was working hard at.
She’d probably not notice very much if school called up with the truth. She’d wave her pastry-gloved hand and say “He’s just a kid; let him be one,” without hitting the realisation that this shortcoming was just another way that I was failing her. My dad would shout about it for a while and then drown my academic non-achievements in alcohol and the comforting idea that idleness was pleasantly masculine behaviour for his “bloody queer” son. After all, Dan and Matt had not stumbled upon their intelligence and tenacity until sixth-form so maybe I was normal. Unfortunately I did not have the redeeming feature that they did; I was not a gifted sportsman.
We hardly spoke again until we arrived and Mum forced us to laugh at her ‘ridiculous’ clumsiness as she set the wind-screen-wipers going as she climbed out of the car.
“Honestly Mum,” Bronwyn said and she led the way into the shopping centre.
Food shopping was, for Mum, what scouring clothes rails was to other women. She would always buy a large portion of the family nourishment from Tesco’s before leading us in a grand tour of all the quirky little organic shops so that she could find the lowest cost, pesticide-free aubergines.
“They taste so much better,” she told me whenever I protested about this behaviour. “And if you had stayed at home you’d be saying you were bored by now.”
These trips had been a feature of all of our lives from early on. Initially they were perhaps intended as indoctrination into food culture, now they were just habit. I always admired Bronwyn’s patience; although similar to Mum she was infinitely more grounded in reality and so it could not have been easy to accept that her early twenties would be consumed by food and by Mum’s inability to notice that she was no longer a child. Dan and Matt had been the lucky children in our family; the ones who’d been blessed with the attention they flourished on. That there were two of them never seemed to matter; in fact, it sometimes seemed to me that this duplicated their right to personhood. Bronwyn and I were just the bookends that held things together.
“I suppose,” I said because it was true. If I was at home I’d be trying to fill empty hours and empty sky with the internet. Regardless of the vastness of cyberspace it could never quite satisfy the hollow cracks of the countryside.
It was at that moment that Abdul walked past the window. He did not look into the shop – not many teenagers would have – but I recognised him. It had to be a chance sighting this time. I was certain that Iris could not have known to send a messenger today but I was struggling to discern why he would just happen to be in Rhayader on a fragile, glassy Sunday morning.
Mum was haggling over kale, Bronwyn had headed over to the last shop on Mum’s list because they sold particularly good root vegetables.
“I’m gonna go wait outside,” I told her un-hearing ear and let the door tinkle angrily behind me in the hope that she’d notice.
I traced the boy down the street. It was not difficult because he walked at such a leisurely pace and, when he turned the corner, he must have caught my face with the corner of his eye because he stopped. His head snapped towards me, forehead pinched just a few notches tighter.
I flinched in irritation. “I have a name,” I told him.
“Oh, I know, Gareth, I was just putting you into perspective.”
“What are you doing here?” I snapped. The way he began sentences with ‘oh’ like each new speech was an afterthought he’d already considered frustrated me. He was a predator; he toyed with others without ever ruffling himself.
“I’d ask you the same question but I can’t be bothered. You being here is actually kind of helpful, you see.”
“I don’t see.”
“Yes you do, because I want to know where Iris is and you’re probably the one person who’d know.”
“Why does it matter? What have I got to do with this?” The questions were rushed out of me before I’d fully digested what Abdul had said.
“Apparently nothing. But it matters because Iris hasn’t been around for days and they’re losing their heads over her.”
“They?” I queried and then managed to take in the rest of the statement. “She’s been at school; how should I know where she goes after?”
“She’s supposed to come back home.”
His words cut me short. They drew scars over all my thoughts.
“Back home? There is no way that you are related.”
“Oh,” he said, taunting me once more with this sudden return to his off-hand manner. “She didn’t tell you? You surprise me. You’re the closest she’s ever come to having a friend. Maybe she was trying to change the truth, just for you. Maybe she likes you. A lot.”
“Didn’t tell me what exactly? She told me she’s got strict parents who-”
He smirked a sad smirk and then began to laugh a laugh that was as cavernous as the wind-torn street.
“She don’t have parents. She lives with me – at a kids care home.”
I probably did something stupid, like let my mouth fall open or my knees collapse under the weight of all the falsities she’d crafted for me. I could feel all those lies tearing me apart from the inside out. I wanted to shatter her for it.
“Shock was it? What were you expecting from a girl like her?” he shook his head; still bearing the tattering remains of a grin. “Would you like the address?”
I must have consented although I was still reeling. I must have consented because he pulled out a pen from his pocket and scrawled something on a bit of his Fish and Chip wrappings. I doubted I’d ever be able to read the scrawl but I took it anyway.
“So is that why you’re here? To look for her,” I asked awkwardly. I didn’t want to be made to feel any more stupid than I already looked and so I focused on keeping my anger at the betrayal firmly shoved out of the way in my stomach.
“Maybe. She comes here a lot. She says she likes watching tourists.”
“In February?” I asked the question coldly and he didn’t respond. I couldn’t really blame him. He should not really have been subjected to my frustration if he didn’t happen to live off Iris’ cigarettes.
“I guess you’re not her secret keeper anymore, huh?” I asked when the silence became too uncomfortable and when I remembered that Mum was probably still engrossed in her groceries and caring very little where I’d taken myself off to.
“She hasn’t paid me for days.” He shook out his empty pockets and then replaced the pen in the front of his shirt with an air of being unable to care less. He started to walk away and then stopped. For the first time I saw something genuine in his back-turned face:
“Oh, and just so you know Gareth – Iris, well, she’s not actually Iris. She’s Lily. Lily Madoc.”