From the interior a woman’s voice yells, ‘And I want change from the fiver.’
The girl doesn’t answer. Simply slams shut the door and runs to the top of the stairs. She is so cocky she reminds me of Billie. I hear her shoes clattering down the stairs. She runs past me, dirty stained top, yellow shorts and brown legs. And suddenly, I am racked by a sense of deep nostalgia for those times when Billie and I ran free. Summer days. Fingers sticky with ice lollies. Not a single responsibility in sight. I watch the girl turn down the road towards the shops. Then I slowly begin to walk towards the tower block flats where Billie and I now live.
It is a horrible place, far, far worse than this small, friendly block. If Blake saw where we live now, he would literally have a heart attack. All his worst nightmares are realized here. Prostitutes work the underpass and there are fights and stabbings when the pubs clear at night. Their drunken shouting and cursing floats up to our flat. Inside our block it is no better. The lifts perpetually smell of stale urine and the stairwells are littered with blood-filled hypodermic syringes and used condoms. Kids play among the needles in the morning.
I live here, but in my heart I am absolutely determined that it will only be temporary. I intend to work hard, make our business work and, hopefully, by the time Sorab is old enough to walk the three of us will be out of here. A sign says no ball games and no dumping of rubbish. In defiance the place is littered with empty cans and someone has simply tipped a badly stained mattress over one of the long balcony walkways of the tower.
I pass the children playing on the concourse.
‘Hey, Lana, we saw you get out of a big car by the shops. Whose car is it?’
‘Never you mind,’ I tell them tartly.
‘Somebody’s got a sugar daddy,’ they sing, and I am surprised anew by how clued up these kids are. At their age, my innocence was complete, my childhood totally unsoiled by any adult knowledge.
One of them breaks from the group and sidles up to me. ‘Go on, give us a pound to buy some sweets,’ she cajoles. She has a head full of bouncing brown curls.
I look down at her. ‘Does your mother know you are begging for money?’
‘Yeah,’ she pipes up immediately, standing her ground without the least trace of embarrassment.
I look into her eyes and feel sad. I know her mother. A hard-faced woman with six kids. Each one from a different father, all dirty and unkempt. For a split second I consider teaching her not to beg, to have pride, and then I give up. I know in my heart it is pointless. I wish a different future for her, but she is already infected by the generation before her. In her round, beautiful face walks the shadow of a drop-out, perhaps even an alcoholic. A blight on society through no fault of her own. I reach into my purse and give her a pound. She grasps it in her small, hot palm and runs off in the direction of the shops, calling after her. ‘Thanks, Lana.’
I skirt the weeds and step onto the cracked concrete. Moodily I kick a Coke can out of my path and round the block. I look up to the second floor of the ugly gray block and see Billie standing on the long walkway balcony outside our door. She is smoking a cigarette and leaning against the metal railing. One of her bare feet is curled around a metal bar. Her hair is no longer white, but flaming red. She changed the color and the style last week when she broke up with Leticia. It is now cut very close to her head on one side and falls longer on the other. She must have just got out of the bath, for her hair is still wet and slicked to her head. She does not see me.
I run up the smelly stairs and step on to our level. She looks up from her contemplative stare and watches me. I step over discarded toys, a tricycle, a plastic bucket and spade, and then I am standing in front of her.
I grin. She kills her cigarette on the metal railing. I fish out the vodka. She grins back. Hers is real, mine is not.
She takes the bottle from my hand. ‘Really?’
‘Really,’ I say.
She puts the bottle on the ground, grabs me around the hips, and sweeps me off my feet, laughing. Her joy is so infectious I have to laugh.
‘Put me down before you drop me over the balcony!’
Instead of setting me back down she whirls me around a couple of times, carries me over our threshold and kicks the door shut like a man, before setting me down on the dining table.
‘You. Are. A. Fucking. Genius,’ she says. Then her face undergoes a sudden change. ‘Oh, shit,’ she cusses and dashes outside. And she is just in time too. ‘Oi you,’ I hear her shout. ‘Touch that bottle and you’re dead.’ There is the sound of little feet scuttling away and Billie comes back into view cradling the vodka bottle.
I slip off the table. ‘How did it go with Sorab?’
‘The usual, you know, eat, shit, sleep, repeat,’ she says, and thumps the bottle on the table.
‘Let me have a quick peek,’ I say, and go into my bedroom. I stand in front of his crib, my heart heavy with sadness. He has no one, but me. He will never know his father. I have denied him his father and a life of unimaginable riches. I push the guilt away. Not now. Not yet. For a moment I think of Blake standing alone in the crowd. We are all of us alone trapped in our own version of hell. I gently trace my finger on his sleeping arm and go outside.
Billie is sitting at the table. The vodka bottle is unopened.
I slip my jacket off. It is too big for me and swings from my shoulder. I open the fridge. ‘I’m going to make some pasta. Want some?’
‘No, had a couple of Turkish Delights.’
‘Bill, you can’t survive on leftover pizza, jam, and chocolates, you know.’
‘It’s not me who looks like a walking skeleton.’ She stares at me daring me to contradict her.
I close the fridge door and face her.
‘You know, when I saw you walking home with the plastic bag from the newsagent I didn’t dare believe, because I could see that you had been crying. I’d like to think you cried because you were so happy but that’s not it, is it? Want to tell me what really happened?’
I sit opposite her. ‘Blake was there.’
Billie pulls forward with a frown. ‘There where?’
‘At the bank. He processed our loan application.’
‘Don’t. You’re going to make me cry.’
‘Can you bite back the sarcastic remarks for one moment?’
She raises her hands, palms facing me.
‘Apparently he has been monitoring my account with the intention of making contact.’
Billie opens her eyes wide. ‘Wow! That’s tenacious.’