Extract

Chapter 1

There’s no other way to put this: I’ve had it up to here. If it’s not Dad whipping off his belt, it’s Mum snapping at me like she never used to, or the bullyboys hunting me at school, or the headmaster asking me if I’ve got any friends when he bloody knows I haven’t. I’ve even had the landlord saying Zinny’s not a proper name for a fifteen-year-old boy and how come my parents can buy me new running shoes when they never pay the rent on time? And now there’s a guy in the street watching my window.

Don’t know who he is, just know he looks normal and feels wrong. I mean, what’s he doing down the slug end of the road anyway? Just dingy old houses. What’s to look at? I keep to the side of the window and go on peeking round the curtain. Big guy, about thirty, neat hair, clean shaven. Not short of money with a flash coat like that. I caught sight of him a few minutes ago walking down the opposite pavement.

Nothing wrong with that. Not everyone thinks Abbot Street’s a cesspit. Some people even live here. But down this end? He’s gone past the shops and most of the other houses and now he’s stopped, and he’s still staring up at my window. Doesn’t look like someone the school’s sent to find me. He’s heading for the front door. I step back from the window. There’s a knock down below.

‘We’ve got a bell,’ I murmur.

It rings, rings again, then silence falls: just the sound of traffic from the main road, then that seems to fade, and all I hear is a blackbird chirping up on the roof. Feels strange for a few seconds, like the city’s turned into a country meadow. Not that I’ve ever been in one. The bell rings again.

I sit on the bed and wait. He’s got to give up soon. I want to go back to the window and check round the curtain again, but I don’t dare. I’ve got a feeling he might look up and catch me. I think of Mum and Dad. Maybe one of them knows him. I hope not. Don’t know why. Still the silence. I picture the country meadow again. I often do this. When I can’t take the city any more, I think of the nature pictures in that book I’ve got.

Sound of footsteps outside, moving back from the door. I’m guessing he’s looking up at the window again. Then another sound, and this time I relax. He’s walking away, not up the road but past the house towards the railway bridge. I jump back to the window and check round the curtains. But I’m too late. There’s no sign of him.

He must have moved dead fast. I slip to the other side of the window to give me a better angle. Still no sign, just the street and the bridge and a train clunking over it towards the city centre. I sit back on the bed again and try to think. There’s nothing says this guy’s trouble, nothing more than my instinct, and that could be wrong. I’m always jumpy when I bunk off school. Then I hear the sound at the back door.

I stiffen. All’s quiet again, and for a moment I think I’ve imagined it, but then it comes back, clear as the thumping of my heart: a scrape, a rattle, another scrape. Someone’s trying to pick the lock. A click as it surrenders and the door opens with a creak. I look quickly round. No time to get down the stairs and out the front door, no point running into Mum and Dad’s room, or into the bathroom. He’ll hear me moving and the only advantage I’ve got is him not knowing I’m in the house.

If that’s true. Best to stay here anyway and hide under the bed. He might just miss me. There’s nothing to steal in my room. He’ll see that at a glance. He’ll see it everywhere else too. Everything about this house’ll tell him how poor we are, so with any luck he won’t hang around. He’s through the kitchen now and into the front room. I can hear him moving about. I kneel down, soft as I can, and check under the bed. Games kit still stuffed under there from last week, plus my old tatty cushion and my running shoes. I wait, listening.

It’s gone quiet downstairs and I’m terrified he’s heard me, but then the sounds start again. He’ll pulling open the drawers of the old cabinet. I squeeze under the bed, ease myself towards the middle. Smells musty and I’m worried I’m going to sneeze. I’ve started trembling too. The unwashed kit’s close to my face and it stinks. I pull some of it out of the bag and stuff it down the other side of my body with the cushion.

Don’t know why I’m bothering. If he looks under the bed, he’ll see me, with or without this stuff. I curl up, try to make myself small. Sound of footsteps on the stairs. I try to stop trembling, but I can’t. He stops outside my door, like he’s thinking which room to try first – then he heads for Mum and Dad’s. Takes his time in there but I can hear what he’s doing.

He’s opening all the drawers, tipping stuff out, poking through, and now he’s pulling back the wardrobe and the old chest, like he wants to look behind them; then I catch another sound. Can’t work it out straightaway, then I get it. He’s dragging back the bed, pulling up the carpet and the floorboards. That’s when I move, because he’ll be in here next, doing the same thing, and I’ve only got one chance to run.

I crawl out and stand up, praying he hasn’t heard me, but it’s no good. All the sounds have stopped in Mum and Dad’s room. I brace myself. He’s listening. He’s got to be. He’s heard something – me obviously – and any moment now he’s going to rush in and see me. But instead he runs down the stairs and out the back door. A crash of the gate and he’s off down the alley, his steps clattering away into silence. Then I hear the key in the front door.

And Mum’s voice.

Chapter 2

‘Hello?’ she calls.I don’t answer. There’s something else wrong now and I don’t mean me being here. I mean Mum being here. It’s two in the afternoon. She’s supposed to be cleaning offices till six. So she said. She calls out again.

‘Hello?’

Then a man’s voice.

‘Take it easy, Dana. There’s nobody here.’

I don’t recognise the speaker. Don’t like him either, now I’ve guessed what he’s come for. It’s gone quiet downstairs and I know why. I want to run down and break them up, but I know I’ve got to keep out of sight. I slip under the bed again and wait for the shout. Nothing for ages. Jesus, they must be glued together. Then footsteps heading for the front room, and Mum’s voice.

‘Bloody hell!’

‘Back door’s open,’ says the man. ‘Could mean they’ve gone.’

‘Or they didn’t close it on their way in,’ says Mum.

They mutter something I don’t hear, then there’s more footsteps, this time on the stairs. They’re both coming up. I curl up under the bed and peer towards the door. Two pairs of feet stop on the threshold.

‘Zinny’s room doesn’t look any different,’ says Mum.

I study Romeo’s shoes. They’re not smart like the ones the other guy was wearing. They’re cheap shit trying to be posh. I feel a sudden urge to crawl out and gob in the man’s face. But he’s moved away now and Mum’s gone with him. I wait again.

‘Christ!’ says Mum.

They’ve seen the main bedroom.

‘I’m phoning the police,’ she says.

‘Dana, listen – ‘

‘I’m not going to mention you. You’d better go. Use the back door.’

‘It’s just that – ‘

‘I told you,’ she says. ‘I’m not going to mention you. You weren’t here, all right?’

‘I love you.’

‘No, you don’t. Now piss off.’

He doesn’t, the bastard. There’s another silence, then a scuffling sound like she’s pushed him away, and then footsteps – his footsteps – heading down the stairs. I picture those shoes again and I’m glad when I hear the back door close and it’s all quiet. Except for Mum’s voice on the phone.

‘Mrs Dana Okoro, that’s right, forty-seven Abbot Street.’

Now I’ve got to risk it. I can’t face Mum and the police at the same time. I’m still
hoping I can get out without her seeing me. If she tells Dad I was here, it’s a belt job this evening. Unless I threaten her with what I know. Can’t make up my mind about that. I crawl out again from under the bed and creep over to the door.

Mum’s still talking on the phone and she’s taken it into the front room. I won’t get a better chance than this. I tiptoe down the stairs. The door to the front room’s open and I can see her in there. She’s got her back to me, one hand holding the phone, the other straightening her hair.

I slip past and head for the kitchen, and she’s talking on, like she hasn’t heard me, and here’s the back door – and shit! I forgot. Romeo closed it on his way out. No way I can open it quietly. It’s a noisy beast at the best of times. Then I realise the talking’s stopped. I freeze and listen, then Mum speaks again.

‘I think there’s someone in the house.’

I yank open the door, slam it after me and race off down the path. Through the gate and out into the alley, and I’m pelting as fast as I can towards the railway bridge. I stay low to make sure the wall cuts me off from the house, but I’m pretty sure Mum can’t see me. She’d have to run upstairs and get to a window and I think I’m ahead of her. Unless she saw me as I scooted down the path.

I’m out in the street now and cutting over to the railway bridge. Under that and down Hendon Street towards the roundabout, quick stop to catch my breath, then on again, jogging now, past the park and on towards the waste ground. But I can’t hide yet. There’s something I’ve got to do first.

Phone box.

No idea how I’m going to do this – I’m rubbish at funny voices – but I’ve got to try. Mum’ll show the police what’s happened but she can’t tell them anything about the guy who broke in, and I can. I pick up the phone: nine, nine, nine. It rings, then there’s a click and a woman asks me which service I want. Only now I can’t speak.

‘Hello?’ she says.

I stare round at the cars and taxis racing past.

‘Hello?’ she says again.

I pull out my handkerchief, stuff it over the mouthpiece.

‘Police,’ I say.

There’s no answer. I try again.

‘I want the police.’

‘Can’t hear you very well.’

I take the handkerchief off the phone and hold it over my mouth.

‘Can you hear me now?’

I’ve messed my voice up best I can but it still sounds like a fifteen-year-old boy trying to pretend he’s someone else.

‘You’re muffled,’ she says.

‘I need the police.’

To my relief, she puts me through. A man comes on, talking brisk, but I cut him off.

‘Write this down. I’ve only got a second.’

‘Can’t hear you very well.’

‘Forty-seven Abbot Street, you got that?’

‘Can you take away whatever you’re holding over your mouth?’

I leave the handkerchief there.

‘Abbot Street,’ I say. ‘I was standing by the alley that runs past the back gardens at the bottom and I saw this guy legging it out the back door of number forty-seven. Don’t know who he is but he looked really suspicious, like he’s just nicked something. You getting this down?’

‘It’s very hard to understand you. Can you give me your name and telephone number?’

‘He’s got dark hair,’ I go on, ‘slick, clean-shaven, smooth-looking guy, about thirty, and he’s got this flash coat. It’s got – ‘

A hand clicks off the phone. I spin round in horror to see the man I’ve just described looking in at me. He’s opened the door of the phone box and he’s blocking my way out. He watches me for a few moments with a kind of cool amusement, then calmly takes the handset from me and slots it back in the holder. I feel my handkerchief flutter to the floor.

‘Glad you like my coat,’ he says quietly.

I stare back at him, try to act confident.

‘I didn’t say I like it. I just said it’s flash.’

His mouth smiles; his eyes don’t. The traffic goes on roaring past. He steps to the side and I see a car parked by the kerb. Big, shiny motor, two men in the front, nearside door open at the back. Flash Coat nods towards it.

‘Get in,’ he says.