It started at tea time, the day before, a Tuesday. Billy felt sick and had no appetite. He’d gone to bed early and found himself tossing and turning half the night in agony. And woke feeling so hot and sweaty his pyjamas stuck to him, despite the cool late September weather. It must have been that burger he’d eaten at the chippy during his lunch break. Well, never again. He fancied a day off school but not if he constantly had the urge to throw up. This was all he needed. Wasn’t his life bad enough? His little sister’s death had hit him hard and even now six months later every little crisis brought about fear and panic. No one understood how such a catastrophic event might affect a twelve-year old boy. He’d even lost interest in football, usually his favourite pastime.
As daylight approached, the curtains of his room were swished open, and, screwing up his eyes, he made out the outline of his father coming towards him.
‘Come on Billy, time to get up,’ he said shaking his arm. ‘Oh… no, dad.’
‘Are you feeling any better now, son?’
‘A bit, I suppose -’
‘Good lad. Hurry up or you’ll be late for school.’
Holding his stomach, he dragged his tall thin body to the bathroom, shoulders bent like an old man. He pulled his fingers through his jet black hair and sat on the side of the bath. Ten minutes later he came downstairs into the kitchen to see his mother standing at the sink. Her thick black hair was cut to her shoulders, her figure slim in a blue dress but she was much shorter than his dad. In fact Billy was now as tall as her. Nervous about telling her he still felt ill, he flopped down at the table. If he tried to explain she’d give him one of her derisive disapproving looks as if to say, ‘I know what you’re up to.’
‘Don’t you want any breakfast?’ his mum asked, eyeing him suspiciously as he sat there.
‘Yeah, I’ll get a bowl of cornflakes in a minute, mum.’
His dad popped his head around the door, ‘I’m off to work now,’ he said ruffling Billy’s hair which he hated. After kissing his wife on the cheek, he left. Billy stared at his bowl of cereal wondering how on earth he’d eat it, aware of his mum’s questioning eyes. She was about to say something, but a knock at the back door prevented her. Billy guessed who it was even before she opened it – that Jane Simpson from over the road. And he was right. The sickly smile the woman gave him spoke volumes - she didn’t like him. Well, he wasn’t her biggest fan either, with her inch thick make up, tight jeans and jazzy low-neck blouses.
‘Cooey, Maggie, it’s only me. Just wondered if you fancied going on a shopping trip this morning?’
‘Love to. When do you want to go?’
‘Whenever you’re ready, dear.’ She raised an eyebrow and glanced in Billy’s direction.
‘If you’ve finished eating, isn’t it about time you went to school, Billy?’ His mum said glaring. She moved her head to one side towards the door, which meant he’d had his marching orders.
‘But mum…’ he protested. Why did he have to leave just because she’d arrived?
‘Do as your mother says; there’s a good boy,’ the Simpson woman said.
He dropped his spoon down hard in the bowl. Then scraped the legs of his chair on the tiled floor, as he got up to fetch his school bag. Knowing the two women would be whispering and laughing conspiratorially, he rushed through the kitchen.
‘Bye, mum,’ he shouted shutting the door with a bang.
‘Yes, bye,’ came his mother’s reply.
On the way to the bus stop he booted every stone, bottle and can he stumbled across, unable to understand why his mum was friends with such a horrible woman. Why was she always around? And usually while his dad was out. After his sister, Katie’s death, his mum had stuck to Jane Simpson like glue. All right so she’d lost a baby too, and a husband for some reason but no wonder. Living close by, Jane had collected money from the neighbours for a wreath for Katie, and had since become his mum’s closest friend. But was forever putting her nose in where it didn’t concern her.
Dexford High was situated just outside Dexford, ten miles away from Birmingham. A small black country town, its centre contained many old Victorian buildings, enhanced by a new Hypermarket right at its centre. Once Billy reached school, the pain in his stomach eased. But by the middle of the morning, he got peckish. During break he devoured a bar of chocolate. But soon wished he hadn’t as halfway through the next lesson he threw up a lumpy-brown-cornflake mess all over his desk. On seeing his teacher, Mr McGill approach, his face flushed, a sour taste came into his mouth; he retched again and vomit spewed out onto the floor.
‘Sorry sir,’ Billy said wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his blazer.
‘Never mind, these things happen. All right, better get yourself home lad.’
Then addressing one of the pupils instructed, ‘Daniel, go to the office with Billy, and explain what’s happened. Better ask them to get the caretaker to come up here to clean up this mess.’
Mrs Dawson, the school secretary, phoned his mum, but when there was no reply, she called his dad. And from the gist of the conversation he gathered arrangements had been made for a teacher to drive him home to Clifton Street.
Billy took off his coat and hung it on the banister, breathing in deeply with relief. His only worry now was what his mum might say when she got home, but he couldn’t help being ill. Ever since Katie’s death, she’d been moody and tearful, taking her grief out on him. But why? It wasn’t his fault Katie had died. He’d seen everything his sister had endured, the vomiting and the agonising pain of her treatment for cancer. So upsetting, especially when she lost her hair. Towards the end she was barely skin and bones. Didn’t he cry as much as anybody? He hurt too, but nobody considered his feelings. He had to deal with his grief on his own. Only his dad took any interest and talked to him, mainly about football – when he wasn’t at work, that was.
With his mum out shopping with Jane, he left his bag in the hall, and climbed the stairs, wanting only to lie down and chill out. However, on reaching the landing, he noticed his parents’ bedroom door was closed. Standing stock-still he heard the faintest of noises coming from inside the room. His heart thumped against his chest and he realised he wasn’t alone at all. Oh no, he muttered to himself. He wouldn’t know what to say to his mum about why he’d been sent home. He knocked lightly on the door before entering.
‘Mum…’ He tentatively opened the door, hardly unable to believe the sight before him. He gasped. No blankets were on the bed, just two grotesque naked bodies, lying side by side. His mum and Jane Simpson.
Billy staggered back, stunned by the sight before him. His face burned, he needed get out of that room quickly.
They stopped at once, his mum’s eyes wide with embarrassment; before the sniggering started. Simpson, of course. Perhaps this was what she wanted all along, Billy thought as he placed a shaking arm across his face.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing, coming in here unannounced?’ His mum screamed, getting off the bed to cover herself with a sheet.
After a few eerie seconds Billy mumbled, ‘I… I’m not well… was sick at school…they sent me home.’
She yelled, ‘Get out of here, you idiot!’ Billy’s whole body quivered. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he turned and ran. In the relative safety of his room, he dived under the bed covers, pulling the blankets over his face to blot out the picture of his mother and that woman. Was this for real, or a nightmare? How could she? Remembering back to the day Katie died, his mum had walked around the house, unable to stop crying. And at the funeral too when she’d screamed so loudly, no one could calm her down. Now this. He lay there sobbing, not daring to imagine what would happen next.
Minutes later he heard the door squeak open. Through his sheets he could just make out her figure standing before him. She tugged back the covers. Billy gasped, holding up his arms to stop what he thought would come next. She stared down at him, teeth clenched, bottom lip pulled back.
‘How dare you come into our bedroom, you stupid boy. Why do you think the damn door was closed? I’ve told you before this room is out of bounds.’ She moved closer to him, so he felt her hot breath on his face.
‘Sorry, didn’t know what else to do…’
‘You never do – do you? I’ve been through hell since Katie died. Jane’s the only person who’s helped me – when all your dad did was to drown his sorrows in drink or go to work. We didn’t mean for this to happen, but Jane makes me feel alive again. Surely I deserve something after all the heartbreak I’ve had?’
‘Mum, how could you? And with another woman?’ he said, tears trickling down his cheeks.
‘Don’t you dare judge me. And if you tell your dad about this, you’ll live to regret it. You’ll destroy whatever’s left of our family. Want that on your conscience?’
Billy’s bottom lip trembled. The whole business turned his stomach. And how dare she use Katie as an excuse?
‘You keep your mouth shut, or else. You hear? I’m warning you.’ She wagged a menacing finger close to his face. ‘Not a word.’
How could he say anything? He wanted to tell his dad so badly, but if it split up the family, he daren’t. His whole body trembled. He hated the person she’d turned into.
‘Good boy,’ her brown eyes lit up. ‘Forget about what you saw – and I promise you everything will be fine’
‘All right, all right,’ he whimpered.
When she’d gone, he sank back down into his bed, closed his eyes, scared and unable to contemplate what the future might hold. Surely, she wouldn’t leave them for that awful woman? But the image of them went repeatedly round in his head. It was like trying to forget a bad dream.
Billy remained upstairs, mindful of needing to find a way to keep his family together. But first he had to face his father. If he didn’t pull himself together his body language would give the game away and his dad would realise something was wrong. Later when his dad came up to his room, he avoided looking him in the eye.
‘How are you son?’ He asked sitting down on the bed, tugging at his black and grey flecked beard, as he was wont to do when anxious.
‘I’m OK dad, thanks,’ Billy smiled, but felt very uneasy.
‘Can’t imagine what you’ve been eating, son?’
Billy shrugged his shoulders.
‘Thank God it wasn’t anything serious. Couldn’t face any more stress, right now.’
Billy nodded, breathing in deeply to avoid tears.
‘I know it’s stupid, but as soon as I heard, I panicked. Thankfully your mum got home in time.’
‘Don’t be daft, dad. It’s probably that burger I had for lunch.’
As his father hugged him tightly, Billy felt for him. If he found out about Simpson so soon after Katie, it would destroy him.