Part 1 – London 2002
Ryan shuffled forward with the rest of the cinema queue. He shifted his weight uncomfortably from one leg to the other and glanced over his shoulder. He was beginning to worry; she was never late. He jangled the loose change in his pocket nervously and whistled, mildly out of tune, to take his mind off her.
He knew he was being stupid, doubting her. She had never let him down before, but he just couldn’t help himself. He so wanted tonight to go well. Tonight was his treat. He had some money in his pocket for the first time ever and he wanted to spend it, to show it off to her. He was finally going somewhere and he wanted her to know. She had always told him he would; she was the only one who had ever reckoned on him. That was why he loved her.
He looked round quickly, purely by instinct, and saw her across the square, striding towards him in that strong unself-conscious way that she had, glancing up at the deep purple summer evening sky. Her long hair had been tied up for work, twisted into a knot on top of her head, but strands of it had escaped and fell untidily around her face, making her beauty seem even more startling for its unattended naturalness.
He watched her for a few moments and then turned away again. He waited for the warmth of her breath on his neck and her long cool fingers over his eyes. It was a game they played, left over from their childhood.
“Guess who?” her voice was full of laughter and he smiled at the silliness of it all. He continued with the game though. She was sixteen and the child in her was irresistible. He grabbed at her hands and pulled her arms down around his waist
“Got ya!” he said, tightening his grip.
She giggled and her hair tickled the side of his face as she struggled to get free.
“Oh no you don’t!” He pulled her closer towards his back, locking her into his embrace. She shuffled back, trying to wriggle her hands free and curled her foot around his leg in an attempt to topple his balance.
“Not so fast!” In an instant he had twisted around and stood facing her, still holding her hands. “Not quick enough Elle Frazer! You can’t beat an old pro like me!”
But she arched an eyebrow and suddenly leant forward and kissed his cheek. He blushed, taken aback.
“OK,” he said grudgingly, “You got me.” He dropped her hands down and frowned. “And by the way, you’re late. I thought you wasn’t comin.”
“I know, I’m sorry. It’s such a nice evening I thought I’d walk from Bond Street.”
He shook his head. “Walk? Its bloody miles that is.” She was always doing things like that. Why walk, was his philosophy, when you can take the bus? “You’re mad!”
“And…Never mind.” He moved aside to let her into his space in the queue. They were almost at the ticket office and she reached down for his hand.
“You look nice. Is this new?” She touched the leather jacket that he was wearing. “Is it real leather?”
“Yeah.” Ryan pushed his shoulders back proudly. “I gottit this afternoon.” He pulled it open. “It’s lined as well!”
She felt the lining and smiled.
He narrowed his eyes and looked at her. He noticed the hesitance in her voice; she couldn’t keep anything hidden from him; he knew her too well. He squeezed her fingers. “Alright. Out wiv it. Wat’s wrong?”
“I just think that it must have cost a lot of money, that’s all.” She looked down. He’d only been working at the garage for a week and it was just like him to go out and spend everything at once.
“Elle, honestly!” He smiled. She was looking out for him; she always did and he was glad, if a bit annoyed that she was questioning his judgement. “Look, I got loads to tell ya. It’s not a problem, the money and such. I’ve done a bit of drivin’ at the garage, a bit like an extra job an’ the dosh is amazin’. I haven’t spent all me wages, I’ve got more and…” His smile grew as he spoke. “An’ I’m gonna put a bit away, so that before long I’ll be able to give ya some money for college and stuff…” He stopped, almost breathless and Elle laughed.
“I’ll be rich and you’ll be a famous artist, like you said.” He stepped forward as they reached the ticket office and ordered the tickets. Taking them, he held them out to her. “This time I’ve got it right Elle, honest I ‘ave.” His excitement had settled and she could see the hope in his face. He dropped her hand to take out his wallet. “Come on,” He led her to the popcorn counter.
“Have whatever you like,” he said. “This is just the beginning cos I’m gonna make you really proud. Just you wait and see.” And with that, he paid for the biggest bucket of popcorn that they had.
It was dark by the time the film ended and Leicester Square was crawling with people. Bright neon lights spilt out from the restaurants and smack bars around the edge of the square, illuminating everything with its harsh unnatural glare. The night clubs were just beginning to come alive and their signs flashed on and off, music blaring from inside; a taste of what was to come.
Ryan and Elle blinked as they came out of the cinema, adjusting their eyes to the dazzling, electric blaze after the darkness inside. The summer night had grown chilly and Elle pulled her jacket around her, digging her hands into her pockets. She shivered. It was a man’s wool blazer that she’d picked up in a charity shop, lined and warm, but her legs were bare. The skirt she wore for work in the gallery ended just above her knees and her shins and feet, in ballet pumps, were cold.
Ryan stood in front of her and turned the collar on her blazer up, tucking the lapels inside each other as if she was a child. They were physical with each other, but in an affectionate way.
“Now, wat do ya wanna do? We can have a coffee up ‘ere in the west end or we can go ‘ome. I know you’re tired an’ all, so tell us wat you want.”
She shrugged. “I don’t mind.” She was tired, but she didn’t want to spoil things.
“Right then, we’ll go for coffee.” He didn’t want to go back to his grimy bedsit on his own, not yet, not tonight. He took her arm and they headed off towards the north end of Leicester Square, the Soho end.
“We’ll go to Angelo’s,” Ryan said, “It’s just down ‘ere.” They walked quickly, away from the bright lights. “I always know someone in there. It’s nice. You’ll like it.”
Several minutes later they stopped outside a small café, Italian run and steamy inside. Ryan opened the door and they went in, the smell of chips and lasagne, coffee and bread rushing out into the cool night air.
“Yo Ryan!” Ryan high fived a couple of lads at the table nearest the door, lads Elle had never seen before and pulled out a chair on the table next to them. “Whassup?” the boy in the hoodie said.
“Been to the movies. This ‘ere’s Elle.”
Elle nodded and sat down. The other lad had a cap on and he took it off now, rubbing his hands over a spike of hair. “You his girlfriend?”
Elle glanced at Ryan. “Yeah, pretty much,” he said.
“Shame man, she’s well fit.”
Elle felt Ryan tense beside her. She smiled and said; “Thanks,” placing a warning hand on his arm.
“She’s way outta your league anyways man, even if she weren’t mine.” Ryan said.
“Yeah?” The lad put his cap back on his head and tilted the peak down over his face. “Reckon?”
Elle said, “Can I have a coffee please?” There was aggression here and she didn’t like it; it made her uneasy. She knew a few of Ryan’s’ friends, and they weren’t like these two.
Both of the lads looked at her. “Where you learn to talk like dat man?”
She flushed and looked away, but she shouldn’t have done; she didn’t really care what people thought.
“She’s smart, that’s where she learned it, cos she’s got a brain an’ she uses it. Alright?”
“Whoa, easy man. Only asking.”
“Yeah, well don’t. Right?”
Elle again squeezed his arm. He was over protective, always had been. She couldn’t explain the way she talked and acted, it sort of came naturally to her and she’d spent a lot of time with Anthony and he spoke, well in the way that doctors spoke, so she tried to be like him. She didn’t fit in, she knew that, especially not at the home, but it didn’t matter to her, not like it did to Ryan He took it all so personally.
He stood up and went to the counter to get them a drink. Elle stared out of the window, but she caught sight of the lad in the hoodie standing and sidling over to Ryan while he waited for their drinks. He passed him something, she couldn’t see what, a piece of paper or a small packet and Ryan pocketed it pretty quickly. Elle turned and looked at him. He nodded briefly at her and the other lad turned away.
“Here.” He brought the drinks over and as he placed them on the table the two lads got up to leave. Ryan said nothing to them; they nodded at him and left. Elle said; “Who were they?”
“Yeah, kinda.” Ryan sat, he emptied a couple of packets of sugar into his coffee, but he was on edge, Elle could see that, he didn’t drink it; he just stirred it and sipped once or twice.
She finished her drink and said “Shall we get home?”
Ryan nodded. Outside on the pavement she took his hand. “Is everything all right Ryan?” she asked, “I mean you’re not in any sort of trouble are you?”
He shook his head and smiled at her. “Elle, will you quit worrying about me? Of course I’m not. I know what I’m doin’ and I’m doin’ all right. You’ve gotta trust me, right?”
She nodded and they headed down towards Charing Cross Road to get the bus. Of course she had to trust him, she loved him and apart from Anthony Moore, he was the only constant person in her life. She had no choice.
Later, when they got off the bus, he put his arm round her to walk her back to the home and pulled her in close. Their affection for each other was easy and unaffected and they looked good together, like brother and sister. She was silent. He glanced down at her.
“You alright Elle?”
But her voice was small and he knew she was lying. He stopped and hugged her for a minute. “You can always come back wiv me if you want?”
“No, I’ll get into trouble.”
She was right; the last time there had been hell to pay. She had been allowed to stay at the home because she was going on to college; usually at sixteen she’d have been asked to leave, and, seeing as she’d been given this special ‘privilege’ she had to be very careful about the rules. One of them was in at midnight – no excuses.
“What are you thinking?” she asked him, “You’re scowling.”
“Am I? Sorry.” He shrugged. He’d been thinking that it hadn’t just been the staff who given her hell last time, it was the other kids there too, with their nasty comments and name calling. It was a rotten place and no mistake, everyone fighting for their inch of power and none of them getting it, but he knew, as well as she did, that it was all she had.
“Come on, let’s get you back.” He took her hand this time and they walked the empty streets of Lambeth, littered and dirty, lined with dilapidated Regency houses and trees that grew despite the opposition from dogs ad cares and lack of care.
They turned into Fentiman Road and wandered slowly along to the home; a peeling, dirty-white, three storey house, boarded up at the basement windows and its front garden strewn with bicycles and discarded toys. They stopped under the street lamps opposite and Ryan Held Elle’s shoulders, looking down into her face.
“Shall I come in wiv ya?”
She shook her head.
“Right. Well, I’ll see you next week then?”
“Yes. Thanks Ryan. I’ve had a lovely time.”
“Listen, Elle.” He reached into his pockets and took out his wallet. “I wanna give you somefink.” He pulled out fifty pounds in ten pound notes and slipped them into the top pocket of her blazer. “For your college fund. Alright?”
“No, Ryan, you can’t, you need…” She reached for the money but he put his finger on her lips. “Have it, please. Don’t make me even more miserable than I am goin’ home to that manky bedsit.”
She sighed, stared at him for a few moments and then dropped her hands down.
“I wanna look after you Elle. No-one else does and I always ‘ave.” He shrugged. “Besides, you look afta me, don’t ya?”
She nodded and smiled. “Thank you.”
“Go on, in you go.”
“Right.” She started towards the house and them impulsively darted back and gave him a hug. “See you next week. Call me, OK?”
He nodded and stood on the pavement for a few minutes until she’d gone in and then he stared up at the home. Not a home really, he thought, just a place to exist. Elle deserves more than that, he decided as he turned and headed for the tube, and I’m going to make sure she gets it. After all, apart from the job and a crummy bedsit in Brixton, she was all he had. In fact she was all she had that was worth anything.