Jennifer is a fiction writer from the outer reaches of the Metropolitan Line. She studied English Literature at the University of Warwick and also spent some time living in Berlin. Her influences include George Saunders, folk music and long journeys. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and planning her first novella.
Jennifer lives in London where she has a lovely day job in a public art gallery.
Life was always split in two. Two bedrooms, with two sets of toys. Two cereal bowls in two different kitchens. Two parents in two separate homes. I was cut in half, straight down the middle. A week with Dad, a week with Mum. That’s how it was.
In the flat, Dad and I would watch the morning news together before school. He would make two slices of brown toast with a thin layer of homemade marmalade for him and pour a small bowl of cereal into a Mickey Mouse bowl for me. Then he would walk me to the top of the hill, kiss me goodbye (“Have a lovely day, poppet”) and continue on foot to work. The cereal was always something sweet. Coco Pops or Frosties, something from those little variety packs you used to get. Or, if there weren’t any of the good ones left, he’d let me sprinkle a teaspoonful of white sugar over a bowl of Rice Krispies. Once, when Mum was ill and there was nothing in the kitchen cupboards, me and Philip made our own breakfast with hot chocolate powder on rolled oats and warmed up milk. We picked up the bowls and slurped down the chocolatey milk and Philip said it was the best breakfast in the world. I didn’t tell him about the variety packs. I wanted to, but I knew I couldn’t. I didn’t talk about Dad when I was at Mum’s. Didn’t talk about Mum at Dad’s. It was like an unspoken rule. We all just kept our secrets.
I hated watching the news. It was boring and knowing that there were cartoons just one click away on the other channel was like torture. Dad said it was good to watch though. That school could only teach me so much. A fond tap on the TV set, “This box is a window to the world, little one.” I’d focus on breakfast and hum along to the sound of the newsreader’s voice. The TV world was like a song. If it was good news, the note was way up high. Bad, and he ended the sentence low.
There was a TV set in every room of the flat except the bathroom where there was a huge pile of old copies of the Radio Times instead. Dad even brought the old telly into my bedroom when he upgraded the kitchen to a flat screen surround-sound system. He had a satellite dish stuck on to the outside of the flats which sent signals up into the stars so that I could watch Cartoon Network after school.
We didn’t have any TV sets in the house on Queen’s Drive. Mum said they turned children’s brains to mush and we didn’t want to end up stupid did we. The letters to Father Christmas made no difference. No Nintendo, no Gameboy, not even a teeny little Tamagotchi. I stopped asking. Instead she’d send us outside to play like kids in the olden days, like she hadn’t read the letters I brought home about stranger danger. Even in Winter when the evenings were dark and cold, she’d wrap us up in coats and scarves and mittens and push us out the back door, pop a little handheld torch into my pocket. “Out you go!”. From the garden we would see her smoking a cigarette by the sink in the kitchen, head bowed low, lit up by the low glow of the light above the cooker.
The house belonged to Mum and her friends but the garden was ours. Just me and Philip and our adventures. I would carry him everywhere. Even when he had learnt to walk he would clamber up my side and loop his arms round my neck for a piggy back. We had a game where I’d let him be the driver and he’d pull on ear lobes to change direction. Right earlobe and we were running across the patio towards the apple tree, a tug on the left ear and we darted past the spiky bush to the compost pile. One year, Graham came home with a gigantic tyre strapped into the boot of his car, got a ladder and used a bit of rope to hang the tyre to the apple tree in the back garden. It was funny seeing him up there, like the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk, Mum yelling up at him (“LEFT A BIT! BIT MORE! NO YOU PRICK! TOO FAR!”), standing wonkily on the wild grass in her nightie and slippers, arms folded. I thought she looked funny on grass. Like she was always about to fall over.
When the tyre was up, Philip and me would swing for hours and hours while the grown-ups stayed inside, smoking and drinking coffee somewhere in the foggy house. I’d give Philip a leg up and then use the lower branches to pull myself on to the tyre behind him. It wasn’t easy but up there was magical, like we were giants, too. Philip was my baby half-brother. His dad lived with us for long enough to put up the swing and then, one day, his Volvo was gone and so was he. Mum shut the bedroom door and stayed in bed. Philip wouldn’t stop crying. I remember I carried him out to the back garden and rocked him on the tyre swing until he stopped. It seemed fair to let him have extra goes after that. Graham wasn’t my Dad after all, and I didn’t mind pushing.
I wasn’t allowed to have friends at Mum’s when Graham was around and, in the months after he left, it was even rarer. I don’t know why she let me invite Josie round to play in the end. I didn’t understand a lot about my mother. I just know that on that day she got out of bed and bought chicken nuggets and potato faces and smiled as if it wasn’t out of the ordinary.
Josie was my best friend apart from Philip. I saw her walking to school on the first day of Reception, skipping down the hill with a red plastic Elmo lunch box in her hand, her mum and big brothers trailing behind her. She was big and bouncy and always humming. I pointed my finger across the road on that first day. “That girl’s going to be my best friend”.
As always, Mum’s house was out of bounds, so we spent most of the evening playing pretend in the garden. Philip was there too, playing his second favourite game of digging up stones in the empty flower beds.
I remember exactly how it happened. We were running through the jungle.
“Then suddenly the two adventurers came across a swamp. The deepest and darkest and scariest swamp they had ever seen!”
Josie screeched and ran across the garden, swishing her stubby pigtails back and wailing her best Tarzan call into the sky.
“And the only way to get across was to SWIIIING FROM THE TREEEES!”
She’d been trying all day for a go on the swing but I’d managed to steer her away. I didn’t mind sharing but the tyre was for me and Philip, no one else. I looked around to tell her that we didn’t need to swing, that I’d found another way round, but she’d already left the ground. Her arms were outstretched, grasping fingertips for the rope. I thought she wasn’t going to make it. Legs scrambled like Wile E Coyote in mid air. She must have grabbed the rope. Or maybe she got a foot on? The tyre swung. Then the cracks. One. The branch split. No time for a scream. Just a thud. Then two. Another crack. A pink and white trainer and a flash of polka dot leggings sticking out from underneath the tyre.
When she turned up at school with a cast, she was everyone’s best friend. The teachers gave her a chair to sit on in assembly while the rest of us sat cross-legged on foam mats on the floor. Zoe Anderson asked to be ‘helper’ which was mainly just carrying Josie’s book bag and telling everyone to get out of their way as she hobbled around the playground. It should have been me. I didn’t bother asking to sign her cast or for a go on the crutches like the others. Everybody had heard. It was my garden, my swing, my fault.
No one had spoken to me all day til Zoe’s gang found me in the dining room
“Josie says your house smells weird.”
The girls behind her giggled. She turned round to shush them. Looked straight at me, eyes twinkling.
“Is it cos you’re poor?”
The clatter of plates and cutlery seemed to just stop. I remember a dull thudding. Hot vomit rising.
I looked at my feet. Zoe stumbled around in front of me. Fits of giggles. All of them. Josie was laughing, too.
I didn’t have an answer.
“At my Dad’s house we have four TVs.” I said quietly.
“There’s one in my bedroom.”
Zoe pinched her nose with her finger and thumb and the others followed. She turned her back and led Josie away, her arm on the bottom of her back.
That evening after school I found Mum in bed. There were bottles on the floor.
“Mum?” I asked
“Are we poor? It’s just Josie and the other girls at school-”
Her head jerked up so suddenly that I jumped up in the air. Her eyes were all pupil and I thought for a second she was going to hit me. Instead, she reached out, bundled me on to the bed like a pile of laundry and clutched me to her chest. She smelled like a warm Christmas pudding.
“You can’t let anyone talk to you like that.” She said. “No one talks to my baby like that.”
Her body heaved up and down. I felt the top of my head getting warmer and damper as she sobbed big wet tears into my hair. She held my head firmly in her hands, still sobbing, the way she always did when I was hurt, looked me directly in the eye and said:
“You tell ‘em Josie Salter’s mother’s a slut anyway. Do you hear me? She’s a fucking slut.”
I got detention for two weeks. The teacher made me write two separate letters of apology. One to slutty Mrs Salter and one to fat Josie for telling the other kids in my class that she’d broken our tyre swing with her big fat bum.
When the lady in grey came to the door for the first time, she just asked if my Mum was home. She wasn’t, so I closed the door and stood with my hands over my ears until she stopped knocking. The next time I saw her she was asking me questions all about the house, about Mum and her friends, and weird things like what did I eat for dinner and things like that. I’d never heard of a custody battle til it was over. Though even now, it doesn’t seem like much of a battle. There was no hitting, no tugging, no battle cries, barely even a whisper anymore. Dad wouldn’t let go of my hand as she hugged me goodbye. Then the delivery men came and moved all my bits from Queen’s Drive into the flat and that was that. I remember how much smaller the flat felt with all that extra stuff, how little space there was for us to move.
I asked every day about Philip. Dad couldn’t tell me where he was and I believed him that he didn’t know. He kept on with his promise:
“We’ll go and see him soon, once everything’s settled down a bit.”
“He should be here. With us.”
“But I’m not his daddy, poppet. It’s just us. And we can be a proper family now.”
The new school was better. It was on the other side of town, even closer to the flat so I could walk all the way there by myself. Sometimes I’d catch a mum or a dad giving me the side-eye in the playground but that was all. I didn’t miss the old school really- the children at this new place all wanted to make friends with the new kid- but I missed walking up and down the big hill and I missed the garden on Queen’s Drive and I missed my little brother. I told the grey lady this when she asked. She would come round to the flat now and then and sit on the sofa with both legs pointing off to one side because her skirt was too tight.
“Have you tried playing out in the garden here? I bet that would be fun.”
She smiled more than any adult I’d ever seen in my life. I wondered if her mouth stayed that wide all the time. How would she eat? How would she shout?
I shook my head. She walked me down the three flights of stairs and led me to the square patch of grass behind the block of flats. It was the perfect kind of green you only ever see on football pitches on the telly or weed-killer adverts. I looked up at the building. Dad was waving down at me from the living room window.
“See, this is nice, isn’t it?”
Dad stopped buying variety packs. He’d seen a documentary on the telly which said that breakfast cereals were killing kids by making them overdose on sugar, or something, so I ate toast instead. We watched the news in the morning, quietly. I hadn’t noticed the quiet before. I liked the man with the caterpillar eyebrows who told us the weather and waved his arms so hard it was like he was making the Southwesterly wind. It was better than looking down at the bread.
For a while after being a proper family with Dad, I would pretend I was a twin. One of those ones that grew together inside their mums. I’d imagine we’d been separated at birth. Cut apart from each other at the hip with a big knife, or however they do it. I would wake up as me, have breakfast as me, and go to school as me. Then, at some point, I’d become her.
I’d do it quietly without telling anyone and nobody would notice because we looked exactly the same except for the scars on the opposite sides of our body. I went to the big house where we lived, with a huge, bright and colourful garden all the way around. There was a woods at the very back with squirrels and field mice and hooting owls which would sing you to sleep. In the woods Philip and I would pretend to be giants, protecting the realm of the Overworld in our treehouse in the sky.
We would play up there for hours until Mum called us in for dinner. Sometimes I would carry him in, but other times we’d race each other to the back door where Mum would be there to greet us. Then we would sit round the dining room table and eat together and there would always be something yummy for pudding.
At home, in bed, in the flashing light as the TV talked to itself, I stroked the outline of the scar with the tips of my fingers and wondered if she did too.