The man with the dog collar came the other night, standing sweating at the door, thin black hair plastered across his head. Me Mam has dog collars, but he brought his own. He always does. It was too late to go out, not that me Mam would’ve minded, but the streets aren’t safe when it’s dark near our place. So I had to watch.
Me Da wasn’t home. He never is. Or when he is, they fight, the stink of the booze hanging heavy in our two-roomed house.
He stayed for maybe an hour, the man with the dog collar. I watched as he sweated and strained, me Mam’s spiked heel pressed hard against his back, the black leather around his neck cinched tight, stained blacker where the sweat runnelled down from the back of his greasy head. Me Mam caught me looking once or twice and waved my looks away. So I watched the wall instead, pretending to read the old newsprint behind the places where the wallpaper peeled.
I asked her once why she did it, but she called me a brat and a stupid little bitch and told me to shut up.
“How else we going to live?” she said.
Me Mam is beautiful, tall and blonde. I love the way the cigarette light sparkles in the blue eyeshadow she wears thick above her eyes. Her eyebrows are high, arched and black.
I saw her burn the man with the dog collar once with her cigarette. Other times she just walks him, around and around the room.
When the man was gone, I stood pretending to look at myself in the mirror above the old cracked sink, but watching me Mam while she sat there, smoking a cigarette and sliding her palm across the black leather at her thighs. She’d shoved the money in the jam jar above the bed, just like always. The bed creaked as she moved.
I looked at her pretty blonde hair and the red upon her lips, wishing I looked the same, that I was beautiful like her.
The man with the dog collar had been her last visitor for the night. I watched her change, grab some money from the jam jar and head for the door.
“Is Da coming home tonight?” I asked her.
“How should I know?” she said and dragged hard at her cigarette. “You go to sleep, Mary. I’m going out.”
I sat there in the man smell, listening as her heels clicked away up the road, echoing from the dirty bare brick on either side.
Somewhere up the street, glass broke and voices yelled at each other, a man and a woman.
Me, I was eleven years old and I loved me Mam. I remembered what she’d said and took out my book to write it down.
“How else we going to live?” she’d said.
School was okay then. Me and my best friend Norma did everything together. She was a bit older than me, but she did most things I told her. Norma wasn’t as smart as me, and she didn’t have a Da. Sometimes we used to play in the old street near the school they called Rat Catcher’s Lane. There were old empty houses down there where slowly, they were pulling down the buildings, making big piles of brick and wood and glass. Nobody lived in them any more and all us kids would play there, throwing stones at the glass to hear it crash and tinkle or digging in the rubble and seeing what we could find. There wasn’t anything much else to do.
Some days I was hungry. Me Mam forgot to give me money, or sometimes there just wasn’t any. When me Da came home, he’d reach into the jam jar and take what was there. He’d come home much later, stinking of booze, the hard light of anger in his eyes. Me Mam would yell at him then, screaming about how he’d taken her hard-earned money and how was she going to live now?
He’d slam her against the wall, big hand around her throat and leaning close. Maybe he’d slap her once or twice, but I always remembered what he said.
“You want to live? Is that it?” he’d say and squeeze her throat.
Then me Mam would cry, and say she was sorry, the lipstick smeared across her cheek. She’d rock back and forth in the old leather chair waiting until me Da was asleep, snoring on the bed. Then she’d fix her face. If she caught me looking, she’d glare and look away.
I learned pretty quickly how to get my way. I’d turn in the schoolyard and fix the other kids with my gaze, letting my bright blue eyes pierce them, sticking them against the wall like flies. Stick them to the wall and watch their fear. Sometimes they tried to get away, but I had Norma there to help me. She’d hold their arms up hard behind their backs as I stared into their faces. Nobody had money, but there were other things. Sometimes, just for fun, I’d squeeze their necks, hold them tight, but not too tight.
One day I burned Sally Cuthbert with a cigarette, right there on her cheek. I got into trouble for that. Miss Thompson took me to one side and asked me.
“Did you do that to Sally Cuthbert’s cheek?” she said.
“Yes, Miss Thompson,” I said.
“Aren’t you sorry for doing such a horrible thing to Sally?” she asked.
“Yes, Miss Thompson.”
She made me stand all alone in the schoolyard in the cold hard wind.
Later she came to get me. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson.”
“Yes, Miss,” I said. But I wasn’t really sorry. It was easy just to tell her I was. After that, nothing more was said, and so I learned.
It was good to feel so strong. It made me feel alive. I heard someone say that once, that something made them feel alive.
A few days later, I was with Norma down in Rat Catcher’s Lane. A group of boys were throwing stones at the last remaining dusty splinters of glass in an old wooden window frame, seeing who’d be the first to knock them free. A little way back stood Bill Marston, watching, sucking at his ragged sleeve.
Bill Marston was younger than me, maybe four or five, and he had blonde curly hair. One hand hitched his grubby shorts higher on one side. I nudged Norma and pointed to him standing there alone.
“Let’s play a game,” I said to her.
“All right,” she said, not knowing what I was thinking, but I knew she’d do what I said anyway. It wasn’t hard to get Bill Marston to come with us and climb the stairs in the old empty house.
We lay him down in the upstairs room and told him we were going to play a game.
I remember how good I felt, just like me Mam. I pressed my fingers around his throat and kept on pressing, gently against his throat, just like the other kids up against the wall. In my head, I saw me kneeling there, red lips and hair so pretty, blonde like his, like me Mam’s. He moved a few times, but he was only little, and Norma was there to hold him down.
When he stopped moving, I turned to Norma and I told her. “How else we going to live?” I said.
We tried to wake him up at first, but he wouldn’t move. I slapped him once across the face, but he stayed quiet and didn’t even cry. We left him there in the dirty old house, all still and grey, shreds of scattered papers all around him. It was strange how still he was. I hadn’t pressed so hard.
A couple of days later, I read about it in the newspapers, how they’d found the boy down in Rat Catcher’s Lane. How young Bill Marston was found by a workman on the upper story of a house due for demolition. I read it over and over. They thought he’d died of natural causes, maybe been stuck in the old house all alone and died of fright unable to get out because he was afraid of stairs. His mother said he’d fallen down the stairs once.
Next day I wrote in my school journal about how he’d been found. I drew a picture of him lying there all alone and the workman who found him. I even drew the doll with the missing arms lying in the corner of the room.
They said they were going to make Rat Catcher’s Lane out of bounds, but they never did. The story was all over the papers and everyone in the street was talking about it. No one knew about Norma and me. They thought he’d just died, but still everyone was talking. Everyone wanted to know how it happened. Everybody so interested, it just wasn’t fair. So I wrote a letter and left it in one of the empty houses down on Rat Catcher’s Lane.
“We murder so we can come back,” it said.
They found the note. It said so in the newspapers. “Some sort of sick joke,” they said. I wrote another.
Everyone knew that Bill Marston had died of natural causes, that it was a tragedy. Despite my notes I planted there to set them thinking, they still thought it was an accident and everyone was talking. Even me Mam and Da were talking about it.
I knew then what I had to do. Five days after, we found a chance.
Norma and me, we found little Brian Greer, playing in the street by himself. He was little too, just like Bill Marston. His fine blonde hair circled his face and he looked up at us, a dirt smear across his mouth. It was easy to get him to come with us. We took him to the vacant bit of land they called Tinpot Field, leading him, one on either side.
Tinpot Field was good, all covered with tall weeds and blocks of concrete. We found a place right near the middle where four big slabs made a sort of house and we took him inside. We lay him down there, out of sight of everyone.
“You’ve got a sore throat,” I told Brian.
He shook his head, not saying anything.
“Yes, you have,” I told him. “And I’m going to fix it.”
Just like Bill, I stroked his throat, gently at first, then harder. Just like before, Norma held him tightly as I squeezed. He kicked and pushed and tried to cry, but my hand was pressed down too tightly and there was no one there to hear, right out there in the middle of Tinpot Field.
This time I’d brought the old scissors from home with me. This time they were going to know it was no tragedy.
I snipped at his blonde hair, leaving little clumps of it around his pale white face.
“What are you doing that for?” asked Norma.
“You’ll see,” I said.
Then I took the scissors and started on his legs. It was hard at first, and that’s why the letters didn’t come out too well. The scissors didn’t have enough of a point. I wanted our initials there clear, for all to see. This time they’d know it wasn’t any accident. We left him there, all still and cold, and I went home and wrote another note.
It only took them a day to find him.
Everyone was talking again, even me Mam and Da. “Who could have done this terrible thing?”
It didn’t take them long to think that maybe little Bill Marston hadn’t been an accident after all. The police were everywhere in our street.
When they came to our house, me Da stood in the doorway, blocking the light. They tried to look inside, but he held his arms out, holding tight to the doorframe on either side. Me Mam stood behind him, smoking a cigarette and not saying a word.
“Don’t be bloody stupid,” he told them. “I think you’d better leave.” They didn’t come back.
It was maybe a week later that Miss Thompson was reading my school journal and she saw what I had drawn. Only then did the police come back.
“How did you know about the doll?” they asked. “That information hasn’t been released.”
And that was how they knew I’d been there, down in the old empty house on Rat Catcher’s Lane.
They asked me a lot of questions, then took me away from home, away from me Mam. They asked me all about it. They knew I’d been there. They knew all about everything we’d done. So I told them.
“Yes, I was there,” I said. “But it wasn’t me. Norma did everything and I just watched.”
They took Norma away too and she told them it was me. They believed her. They said Norma was too stupid to lie. After the trial, they let Norma go.
They asked me if I was sorry for what I’d done.
“Yes,” I said, and looked back at them with my clear blue eyes.
Twelve years they kept me. Big brick buildings and thick grey bars across the windows and everyone so nice. After a while they moved me somewhere else, somewhere without bars.
I’m back now. I’ve got a new name and a job and a place that goes with it.
Sometimes I think about me Mam. Sometimes I watch the kids playing in the street and I think to myself: How else we going to live?
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