Jonah’s red and rusting transit van was a treasury of sweet wrappers, empty crisp packets and assorted fluff and sticky stuff. I was surprised. His flat was an oasis of order and cleanliness. I shot him a questioning glance as we drove into town.
‘Not me,’ he said.
‘The text writing bitch?’
He chuckled and shook his head, and pulled into the kerb outside Popper Originals. The shop window contained a display of vaguely phallic sculptures, a couple of Northumbrian landscape paintings, and the knotted face of Rebecca Popper – my mother. She was waiting for me. My agitated state cranked up a gear. I grabbed my backpack, shot Jonah a grateful smile and jumped out the van.
‘Must be the band then,’ I said.
We grinned awkwardly at each other for a bit and I twirled my bag in my hands, desperate for something to say.
‘Thanks again,’ I said, feeling idiotic.
‘You busy tomorrow?’ he shouted over the engine.
‘Yeah. I’m seeing you.’
Jonah laughed and pulled my card out of his back pocket. ‘I’ll call you.’
I slammed the van door and rushed into the shop. Popper Originals sold arts and crafts made by local artists, and occupied two adjoined buildings on Osborne Road in Jesmond. Mum bought the shop not long after we arrived in Newcastle from Brighton, and with the persistence of water torture had made it work. She had the gift of being gentle with the artistic egos but mercenary with the galleries and customers. The latter she classified as Bored Wealth, convincing the likes of Crispin and Zenobia that what they really needed, what would make their life and converted barn complete, was a few aspirational art objects.
‘You’re late,’ said Mum.
I opened my backpack, dumping cloths, dusters and home-made eco-sprays on the counter. Mum still had her face pressed to the window.
‘Was that Danny? When did he get a van?’
‘It wasn’t Dan, Mum.’
I cleaned in a blur around the shop, leaving a trail of white wine vinegar and lemon juice in my wake. Mum followed, like she always does, checking every object and surface. She doesn’t believe something is clean unless it’s been sluiced down with a chemical cosh. I had to train her to stop using those artificial air fresheners that leave my eyes stinging and make everything smell like a toilet, teaching her about essential oils and how to, you know, open a window.
This hyper-vigilance was accompanied by the usual stream of criticism aimed at Danny – my brother and twin. Two sperm, apparently. We even look a little alike now I’ve chopped my hair short. Anyway, a year ago Danny walked out of a job on a building site: said the gaffer was a bully, there was a conflict of personalities, he always got the shitty jobs and why should he have to put up with that kind of crap. Turned out, Danny had been caught smoking the wrong kind of cigarettes. He quit before they could fire him. Mum hadn’t spoken to him since.
‘He’s been stealing again. He comes into the house when I’m busy here. He obviously thinks I’m stupid. Does he think I don’t notice? Zoe?’
‘No. I doubt he thinks that.’
‘Well, then what does he think he’s doing? When is he going to get a job like a proper person?’
My fist tightened around the cloth. Always the same argument. It was pointless to get involved, neither of them listened. I tried to stay out of it, but they kept dragging me back, like a couple of kids in the playground squabbling over whose turn it was to play with the marbles.
‘You can’t wash your hands of him then start making demands,’ I said with a sigh, knowing Mum would take this as a cue to turn her attention on me.
‘When are you going to come home? You can’t stay with your brother, he’s a bad influence. I hate not knowing where you are. At least give me the address.’
‘I promised Danny I wouldn’t.’
‘He wouldn’t have to know.’
‘And how would that work, Mum. Think it through.’
After the Big Fight, Danny left home. His name had reached the top of the housing list so he moved into a squalid flat in Elswick and ‘forgot’ to tell Mum where he was going.
I finished packing my cleaning things away while Mum continued the offensive. Why had I cut off my beautiful hair, I should have paid someone to do a decent job of it, I looked like a boy, when was I going to start doing something useful with my life, what was I doing cleaning when I’m so much smarter than any of my customers. I smiled inwardly at that one. Smarter than you, Mum?
‘You can always pay someone else to clean for you.’ I held out my hand.
She looked affronted. ‘Can I give you the lot next time you do the house?’
‘It isn’t pocket money. This is my business.’
She sighed and opened the till. Credit where it’s due, without Mum I couldn’t have got the business started. A lot of my customers are her customers, some are her friends. She was the first to take me on and then talked me up so aggressively to everyone she met it wasn’t long before I was having to turn people away. I think she was just happy I was doing something after the Big Disappointment of me dropping out of university. She probably thought I was going to end up like Dan.
The bell above the door jangled and in walked Popper Original’s only shop assistant. Kayleigh had violent blue hair and vivid green six inch heels, her ears were plugged with headphones and she was chewing gum. She always chewed gum. In fact, I’d never seen her eat. She seemed to gain all her sustenance from aspartame.
‘Hiya Becks,’ said Kayleigh as she breezed through to the back room.
‘I’ve told you a thousand times not to call me that,’ shouted Mum.
Kayleigh reappeared without coat and headphones and winked at me. She’d worked here for a couple of years after leaving school with only two GCSEs, Art and English, having failed everything else. With bleak prospects, she bulldozed Mum into giving her a job. For her part, Mum had recognised a fellow hustler and wanted to neutralise the competition.
‘Alreet Zo,’ said Kayleigh between chomps on her gum. ‘Did I miss the big birth rant yet?’
‘No. You’re in luck. Today we’re trying to get away without paying the staff.’
‘There,’ said Mum, thrusting the cash into my hands. ‘You girls enjoy picking on a poor defenceless old woman?’
This was so far from the truth on every level that I felt a surge of affection for my mother and almost hugged her. Almost. Instead, I retreated to the door.
‘I don’t always talk about your birth, do I?’ she said. ‘I mean, it was pretty unforgettable. It went on and on. I thought it would never end.’
I slipped out the door. ‘Bye, Mum.’
My birth. Our birth. We will forever be one, even now. No matter what life throws between us.
The story was a classic of maternal exaggeration. Mum told it so often I’d started to believe I could actually remember it: the muffled sounds, the whooshing heartbeat and endless darkness.
The prenatal world was crowded. We were locked in a nine month long embrace. The space shrunk daily and I was desperate to get out, to breathe the air and feel something other than his slippery limbs wrapped around mine. Convulsions, unbearable pressure, and still Danny wouldn’t budge. I tried to shove him out of the way, the embrace transformed into a wrestling match.
In the end, the doctors dragged him out. Mum said he was born with two black eyes. Is that possible? Did I do that to my fractionally bigger brother? Anyway, once they had him, he was making such a fuss no-one noticed when I flopped out fifteen minutes later, exhausted and thinking there had to be an easier way. Probably.
Things hadn’t changed much since then. Thirty-three years later I was trapped between my mother, who wanted to turn me into herself, and my brother, who also wanted to turn me into his mother. All I wanted to do was be Zoe, but I didn’t know who that was.
I walked into town from the shop. I walk a lot. I have no idea how much ground I cover day to day, but can wear through a pair of trainers in six months. I reckon if I knew how far I walked between customers, I would convince myself it couldn’t be done and get the bus. I’d get lazy, get fat, and die. So I walk and think about something else.
I hiked up Westgate Road thinking about this and that and barely noticing where I was, and fell into step behind a pair of lads shambling along, jeans around the tops of their legs. They could hardly walk. I had to stop myself running forward to yank up their trousers and deliver a stern lecture about the virtues of a belt, or at the very least braces, as I did so. They were embroiled in a heated discussion about something or other, which required the use of more profanity than I cared to know. I tried to extract the gist of the argument from between the cascade of fucks and bastards, but didn’t know where to start.
They shuffled forward as if wearing leg manacles, shoulders hunched, stabbing at the air with the exaggerated gestures of the chronically insecure or the drunk. Condemned men firing out tiny globules of spit left and right.
I wanted to overtake, but was worried I’d be hit in the back by a mucus pellet, so slowed down and hoped they weren’t going all the way to Elswick. Their movements were curiously synchronised, like they were engaged in a strange aggressive ballet. Something was tugging at my awareness, something I’d noticed but hadn’t really seen, so I glanced down.
A jolt of electricity hit my heart. The one on the left hadn’t tied his laces. They were flapping around his ankles. How was he not standing on them, falling over, breaking his neck?
Pain seared across my chest. My heart was trying to smash through my ribs. I yanked at my jacket to pull it away from my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I was going to pass out. I couldn’t pass out, not in the street. I wanted to run. I wanted to jump into the road, screaming.
Keep it together. One foot in front of the other.
I forced myself to look away, look at the houses, the cars, the yellow line in the road, anything but those stupid laces. They’re just bloody laces, for goodness sake.
I dropped my backpack in the hall and pressed my forehead against the wall. It was safe now. I stood with my eyes closed for a moment, the resistance in the wall making me feel more solid. The flat was silent, perhaps Danny was still in bed.
It wasn’t a bad place to live, but it was small and felt all the more so with both of us there. Since I’d moved in, I’d done my best to liven it up with curtains and cushions, but Danny had a way of messing everything up without even trying. He spent the little he got from the dole on skunk and booze, so I hadn’t been surprised to find he’d been stealing from Mum. He drifted day to week to month, waiting for something, who knew what.
I glanced at the clock in the kitchen down the hall. Three twenty? I shook my head and checked my mobile. Every clock in the flat told a different time. I’d synchronised them once, but somehow over the months they had drifted, with Danny, into timelessness.
I went through to the living room and squeezed between the TV and the coffee table heaped with empty Carling cans, congealed takeaway cartons and stuffed ashtrays. Blankets of sweet smelling smoke hung in the air, lasers of sunlight piercing the nimbus through a chink in the closed curtains. I flapped my arms pointlessly and flopped into a chair.
Danny was asleep on the sofa looking pale and ruffled, like an unkempt vampire. One of his laces was undone. In a rush, I lunged forward and tied it. He stirred and peered up at me, rubbing his eyes.
‘Can I borrow some money?’ he said.
‘What did you take from Mum?’
He groaned. ‘Just some food from the fridge.’
‘Dan, you have to stop this. You’re 33 years old, you can’t keep rebelling like a fourteen-’
‘Don’t start with your psycho-bollocks,’ he said, cutting across me. ‘Lend us some cash, Zo.’
‘No. I need it. I’ve got a date.’
Danny sat up and leaned over the end of the sofa in my direction. ‘May I remind you, you live here rent free.’
‘You get benefit.’
I sighed. I knew how this was going to go. It always ended the same way. I was a mug. Danny slid off the sofa and plonked himself in front of me, his head in my lap. He gazed into my eyes, a lost dog, and I did what I always do. I gave him half what I had.
‘Don’t you want to hear about my date?’
Danny leapt to his feet and grabbed his coat from the floor.
‘Later. Gotta go. See ya, sis.’
He kissed the top of my head and was gone.
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