‘What’s for dinner?’ says Terry, shrugging off his donkey jacket. His knee clicks as he sits at the formica-topped table, and he swears and rubs it hard.
‘Hurting again?’ says Angie, slipping a fried egg on to a pile of chips.
‘Aye. Bloody thing.’
‘You should get to the doctor then.’ She hands him the plate, sits across from him and lights up a cigarette.
‘You not eating again?’ he says through a mouthful of chips.
‘I’ve got another five pounds to lose. I’m going to smoke myself slim.’
‘You look all right to me.’
‘Not in my bloody bikini I don’t.’
‘You’ve got three months before we go away.’
‘I’ve got two months, twenty days and’—she looks at her watch and inhales deeply—‘half an hour if we leave at teatime. Cleethorpes here we come!’ She looks over to me and winks.
He laughs. ‘Daft cow. Well, leave a bit of lard on those bones. I like something to hang onto.’
She swats at him across the table. ‘Crude bugger. The kid’s got ears, you know.’
He turns to look at me and quickly looks away. ‘Like he understands.’
‘He’s eighteen. ’Course he understands,’ she says. ‘Don’t you, Mekki?’
And I do, thanks to the cardboard walls in this shit house.
There’s a knock at the front door, swiftly followed by two rings of the bell. Neither of them move.
‘You going to get that?’ asks Terry.
Terry gets to his feet with a sigh, his knee clicking again. He crosses the hallway—three steps, heavy on the right foot. The door sticks: bottom left-hand corner.
‘Yes?’ says Terry. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Can you help me?’ says a voice. A young man’s voice.
‘What do you want, mate? We don’t buy on the doorstep.’ Terry is jabbing a finger at the sticker on the bay window; it’s a dull thumping sound.
‘What do I want?’ says the young man.
It makes me smile, inside my head. The man’s inflections are funny. There is silence from the front door and I can picture the scene. Terry isn’t renowned for good humour. He’ll be taking a threatening step forward right about now. The other man doesn’t sound like the type to back off. There could be a stand-off.
I feel a frisson of—something. Excitement? I’m not generally fond of strangers. First they stare with horror, then with pity; then they try to pretend they’re not staring; and then they just forget I’m there. I’m the invisible boy.
When I was little, about five or six, Angie decorated me all up with fairy lights and tinsel. It might have been Christmas. I hope it was Christmas. She wrapped the lights around the wheelchair and the rods that approximate my spine. She wrapped the tinsel around my head brace. It itched my face something awful but, of course, I couldn’t tell her that. I sent my fury blazing out of my eyes but by then she was already immune to fury—mine, her own, anyone’s.
She probably thought the decoration would make me look more approachable, but mothers still crossed the road to avoid us, clutching their kids to their side.
To be fair to Angie, she only tried it that one time. There really isn’t much you can do to make my kind of disability look friendly.
And yet, here I am, trapped inside this broken body in a rundown kitchen, slowly dying from passive smoking, one minute suicidal with boredom—not to mention the pain—and the next minute feeling excited.
‘Who the bloody hell are you?’ demands Terry.
‘I’m God,’ says the man.
There is a beat of silence and then the smash of a slamming door.
‘Who was that?’ says Angie, exhaling smoke with every syllable. It’s not that Angie can’t hear; it’s that she doesn’t listen.
‘Jehovah’s Witness,’ says Terry, slipping into his chair, and swearing as his knee clicks again.
After that, Terry goes out drinking and Angie and I watch the soaps until he comes back. He is, once again, too drunk to carry me to my bed.
‘I’m sorry, love,’ says Angie, tucking a blanket around my chin and popping a kiss on my forehead. ‘He doesn’t mean to be unkind.’
She turns out the light and leaves me in the corner, in the dark, upright in my chair with a thin blanket to keep out the chill. The smell of grease lies heavy on the air. I hear her trudging up the stairs. She pauses outside her bedroom door, then turns the handle and steps in.
He’s on her the moment she enters the room, as always, and as always she pretends to like it. Christ, he’s stupid. Even I can tell she’s faking it. She has to time the orgasm right; too quick and she’ll have to go a second round. Too long and—well, it’s just too bloody long. Get it right and his manhood is served, every which way.
Christ. No son should know these things about his own mother.
There she goes. Spot on; his cry mingles with hers: ‘I love you, Ange!’ Then he swears, and then he snores. A stupid man at peace.
I hear her get up and start to move around between the bedroom and the bathroom. Then the house falls silent.
I can see the digital clock from here. Seven hours and eighteen minutes until daylight. The fridge hums. I need a fag; I get withdrawal symptoms at night.
* * * *
‘Face it, Ange, he won’t know any different.’
But she is adamant. ‘I won’t do it.’
He gets angry. ‘I’m bloody sick of it! I sit here day after day watching you wipe up his spit-sick-and-shit. He’s a millstone around your bloody neck—and mine! There’s not many blokes would put up with it, Angie. Not everyone’s like me. Most men wouldn’t do for him what I do. I’m just saying.’
Her eyes narrow. ‘And what is it you do for him?’
Don’t do it, Angie.
He is hurt, outraged. ‘What do I do for him? And who the bloody hell carries him up to bed every night? Hauls that bloody wheelchair from here to kingdom come?’
‘He spends every other bloody night in the bloody kitchen because you’re too bloody drunk to carry him upstairs!’ she shouts. ‘Most of the time you pretend he’s not even here!’
‘He should be in a home! He’s like a dumb fucking animal. He doesn’t know you, you daft bitch! He won’t know the difference!’ He storms out of the house, slamming the front door.
Angie lights up a cigarette. ‘It’ll be all right,’ she says. ‘We’ll leave him soon. He’s not much use anyway. I’ll find someone else. Don’t you worry.’
She’s talking to herself.
* * * *
At teatime Terry comes home as if nothing has happened. The fact is, as much as he loathes living with me, he loves living with my mum. She takes good care of him. She feeds his appetites—of which he has many, all of them voracious. His definition of happiness is a good meal and a good fuck, preferably three times a day. And he calls me the dumb animal.
There’s a knock at the front door, swiftly followed by two rings of the bell. Neither Angie nor Terry makes a move.
‘You going to get that?’ says Terry.
Terry gets to his feet with a sigh, his knee clicking. He crosses the hallway—three steps, heavy on the right foot. The door sticks: bottom left-hand corner.
‘You again!’ says Terry.
‘Indeed,’ says the young man from last night. He sounds pleased with himself; again, an impulse of excitement runs through me.
‘What do you want?’ I’m surprised to hear a note of civility in Terry’s voice; I wish I could see the man on the doorstep.
‘I want to come in,’ says the man. ‘I want to see Angie and Mekki.’
‘You what?’ says Terry.
And then, somehow, the young man is standing in the kitchen, beaming at Angie and me. ‘Hello!’ he says. ‘I’ve been looking forward to seeing you two again.’
‘Who are you?’ asks Angie. She’s smiling. Perhaps it’s the sight of Terry’s outrage.
‘I’m God,’ says the man, and he puts out his hand.
‘Pleased to meet you, God,’ says Angie, and she shakes his hand.
He has very blue eyes but is otherwise completely nondescript. He has an air of childish delight about him, as if everything is thrilling. But there’s something more. Terry is an idiot but even he has some basic instincts and has understood that our stranger is not a man to mess with.
‘Mekki,’ says the man. He looks me straight in the eyes and he takes my hand and shakes it. Then he looks around for a tissue and wipes the spit from my chin. ‘What’s for tea?’
‘You’re not staying for tea,’ begins Terry.
‘Egg and chips,’ says Angie.
The man is sitting at the table. He eats tentatively, as if he has forgotten what food tastes like. He catches my eye often. ‘What about Mekki?’ he asks Angie.
‘What about Mekki,’ says Terry. He has been astonished into silence. This oaf, my mother’s latest boyfriend, who can be turned into a fist-flailing maniac at the slightest provocation, has no idea how to handle the stranger’s confidence. The stranger expects to be here, sitting at the table; Terry can find nothing to argue against.
‘Mekki’s already eaten,’ says Angie. ‘Terry doesn’t like to watch him eat.’
The stranger starts to laugh. ‘I don’t think Mekki much likes watching Terry eat either.’
My eyes widen; the stranger has lifted that thought straight out of my head.
‘Call me God,’ says the…says God. I smile inwardly; God smiles back.
Angie puts down her knife and fork. ‘God,’ she says. ‘You mean…the God?’
‘The one and only.’ He smiles at her. He is kind.
‘If you’re God, I’m the bloody Pope,’ says Terry and he laughs.
God looks at him closely. ‘No,’ he says at last. ‘You’re not.’
‘So what’re you doing here then?’ says Angie, pouring him another cup of tea. ‘I’d have thought you were much too busy running heaven to come down here making house calls.’
God smiles. ‘House calls are my speciality.’
‘And what do you want, exactly?’ says Terry. ‘Mister God.’
Terry is not good at sarcasm. Angie grins down into her lap. My eyes are swivelling from one face to another. I am enjoying myself.
God shrugs. ‘It’s your turn,’ he says.
Terry is taken aback. ‘My turn? For what?’
God smiles at me.
When dinner is over, Terry wants to go for a drink, but God is showing no sign of leaving. So instead, Terry helps Angie with the dishes. He teases her, and kisses her on the lips several times. He is marking his territory.
God sits quietly at the formica-topped table. When the cleaning is done, he gets to his feet. ‘Let’s take a walk!’ he says. He does not wait for a reply. He pulls my chair out of the corner and easily manoeuvres me into the hallway, into my coat, into the cool evening air.
‘Now wait just a bloody minute,’ says Terry.
‘Ooh lovely, I need a walk,’ says Angie.
I breathe in deeply. I haven’t been outside since Angie made Terry take me to the corner shop for a packet of fags two and a half weeks ago.
‘Cigarettes are bad for you,’ says God. ‘You should get out every day. We’ll go to the park.’
It’s twilight, so there is no one to gawp at me. I’m warm inside my coat. The trees are budding and I can hear things rustling in the undergrowth as we pass by.
‘Don’t you just love the spring?’ says God.
Terry snorts. ‘Mekki wouldn’t know a season from a sledgehammer.’
… ‘poetic of you, Terry,’ says God.
I’m filled with a sense of wonder. This God person knows I’m in here. We’re on the same wavelength.
‘Did you ever consider getting Mekki any tools to help him communicate?’ God asks Angie.
Angie shrugs. She has never doubted that I’m in here, and that’s enough for her. She doesn’t need proof, even if she thought that proof were possible.
I, on the other hand, am desperate to have my voice heard, and I know exactly how possible it is. I’ve seen it on the television: head-control mouse emulators. They use ultrasound or eye movements to control the cursor on a computer. Of course, I’ve never been able to tell Angie about it.
‘Don’t worry,’ says God, and he tells Angie.
At home, we go on the Internet, and he shows her a clip of a man in a wheelchair just like mine, wearing a headpiece and looking at a computer screen. Words appear on the screen, as if by magic, and an electronic voice reads the words.
‘Bollocks,’ says Terry. ‘Look at that. The lights aren’t on because there’s no one at home. Don’t fall for it, love. It’s a gimmick. God’s trading on your hope.’ He looks across at me. But there is something new in his look. I can almost hear his thoughts: what if the kid isn’t a dumb animal after all?
That’s right, Terry. Think of all the things I’ve heard and seen. Every arse scratch, every private fart, every time you’ve called in sick and gone back to bed; every time you said you’d mind me and then spent the day in the pub. I’m the watcher in the corner. Think on that!
‘How much does it cost?’ says Angie.
‘Like we’ve got any money,’ snorts Terry.
‘We’ve got holiday money,’ she tells him.
* * * *
My first coherent words are fuck off terry. Angie cries but God laughs. I am very proud. Also a bit dizzy and sick with excitement.
Animals are nice. I am an animal. I am not dumb.
Look at that. Punctuation and everything. And they say watching television is bad for you.
‘My boy has a voice,’ says Angie.
I hate eggs, I tell her. Prefer your hair brown not blonde.
Terry sits in the background, speechless and horrified, like it’s the wheelchair talking. I am almost sorry for him.
Been here all along, I tell him. Ta da!
* * * *
We become comfortable together, Angie, Terry, God and I. I cannot move, and remain entirely dependent on others. I am in constant, unrelieved pain and always will be. But I have a voice. I can interact. I can agree, or object, or complain. I can tease and laugh and play. I can whine, and I do, quite a lot.
It’s not just me that’s been re-born. I always knew what a star Angie was. She never gave up on me, never put me in a home, never treated me like a burden or an empty vessel. She’s put up with some pretty horrible men over the years, either because they were big and mean enough to lift my wheelchair, or because they were willing to put up with me.
I always knew Angie was a star, but she didn’t. Discovering how right her instincts have been—it’s given her a whole new confidence. She glows, honestly, she does, like she’s finally got something right. She’s stopped the whole bleached blonde thing that Terry loves so much, and has gone back to her natural brown. It suits her. She’s only thirty-five, and now she looks it. When I hear her now, at night, I can tell it’s the real thing. And when she’s had enough, she says so. And Terry takes it.
I thought Terry’s days were numbered. I thought he’d leave, or she’d kick him out. But her new-found confidence has been a good influence on both of them. He’s more careful. He’s kinder. I think, maybe, he’s always been a nice bloke inside. He just acted up because he could.
We all have a new voice.
God is the one I can’t work out. Why do you stay? I ask him at last. Don’t you have other worlds to run?
God looks sad. ‘Do you want me to leave?’
No. Just thought you might be busy.
‘The other worlds are as broken as this one,’ he says. ‘Heaven too.’
What does that mean?
‘It means exactly what it sounds like. Nobody believes in anything any more. Everything is broken.’
I was broken, I say. You fixed me.
God shakes his head. ‘You’re not fixed.’
Yes I am. I was a broken doll. You saw inside me. You joined up my inside with my outside. I am not broken anymore.
‘Really?’ says God.
‘Hold onto that thought,’ he says. ‘I know I will.’
He moves out the next day, although Angie tries to persuade him to stay. I am sorry to see him go.
* * * *
Angie is dead. We’d been shopping and she was pushing me home when a boy-racer in a souped-up mini mounted the pavement and hit her. She’s a small thing, my mum, but she’s strong and she’s determined. She pushed me clear before she flew up into the air and landed on the road, breaking her spine.
How stupid. My spine is already broken; why waste a perfectly good one like hers?
I am back in the kitchen. I have been alone for hours. My computer is on but the screen is black. It’s all very well having a voice, but pointless if there is no one to hear it.
The funeral was this morning. Afterwards, Terry brought me home and then he left. I don’t know if he’s coming back. I am trapped. I find myself wishing that mum had put me into a care home. Instead, I will probably die of starvation—if grief and despair don’t get me first.
It is one in the morning. I have soiled myself. I am hungry and in pain.
And then—miracle of miracles—there is a sound from the front door. The door sticks, bottom left-hand corner, and then there are three steps in the hallway, heavy on the right foot. I hear a knee clicking.
Terry flicks on the lights. ‘I’m sorry, lad,’ he says. His voice is thick with alcohol and emotion. ‘I forgot the time. I’m so sorry.’
He lifts me gently, carries me upstairs. He cleans me up, gives me a warm bath. When I’m tucked into bed, he goes downstairs and reappears fifteen minutes later with a meal. It’s rudimentary, but it does the job. He cradles my head as he feeds me.
‘There you go, son. I’m sorry I was so late. I shouldn’t have left you like that. I was in the pub having a drink. With God.’ He hesitates. ‘Do you want to talk?’
I blink twice, our new signal for ‘no’. I don’t want to talk, but I want to listen.
Terry says, ‘Do you know, that clever so-and-so lived with us rent-free for almost three months! We housed him, we fed him—I think your mum even bought him some clothes. And now he’s living off some other poor sucker! He’s shameless, even for God.’
I smile inwardly; Terry smiles back. Then we both cry.
It will be hard without Angie, without my mum. I love her and I miss her so badly I can hardly bear it. But I am good at bearing things. For now, at least, Terry and I will muddle along. When we both feel better, chances are that we will move on. I will end up in a care home, I know that. I know that, but I don’t mind. I lived with Angie for the rest of her life, and that mattered to her. She never had to give up on me. I don’t think she would have survived having me in a home. I’m not sure I would have survived, either, then. But I have a voice now, and I am not alone, what with Terry and God who, I suspect, will come calling again some time when I most need him and least expect him.