Jack Black, on his way to the café where he worked five shifts a week, had two problems. One, he was in his first year at London University and he lived at home with his Mum and Dad; two, none of his new friends knew that.
“You’re lucky to have a nice roof over your head, there are lots of others, blah, blah, blah,” his Mum said. “Sorry son, it’s a bit lame, I know, but we can’t afford halls,” his Dad said. Jack said very little, and prayed that no-one asked him directly if he lived at home. He’d got away with it up until now, only tonight was going to be tricky. He was about to host the first and biggest party of the term and some of his new mates were going to have to meet his brother; he just hadn’t been able to farm him out to anyone. Parents; easy, night away, but Alex? He sighed. It wasn’t that there was anything exactly wrong with Alex, Jack thought, kicking what he thought was an empty Starbucks coffee cup. It wasn’t, it was half full and the lid came off, leaking coffee all over the tip of his white plimsoll and soaking his sock. It was more that there wasn’t anything exactly right with Alex either.
Jack turned the corner into Inverness Street and waved at the guy holding the ‘Discount Trainers and lots more inside…’ sign. He crossed the road.
“Yeah. You up for tomorrow?”
“Wouldn’t miss it man. I never miss a party.”
“Great. See you around nine.”
Jack went on his way. He couldn’t remember Sign Boy’s name, wasn’t sure if he even knew it, but when he said the biggest party, he meant the biggest party. You couldn’t get to Alicia Holden without hosting the biggest party of the term. Richie, not really a mate but thought he was, reckoned that Jack couldn’t get to Alicia Holden if he hosted the biggest party in the whole damn country. Jack thought Richie was a zombie; she was coming; end of.
At the café, Jack hung his jacket up in the back room and turned on all the lights. On Friday mornings he opened up because he wasn’t in lectures until midday and he always managed to deal a bit before the place got busy. He stashed his bag with all the merchandise under the till; he needed to be able to get to it quickly and without drawing attention to it. Not that it was anything sinister or illegal, like drugs; in fact it was simply making the most of his talents, but still he didn’t want to get caught. He turned on the coffee machine and pulled on his cleaning gloves. Nice look, he thought, twanging the end of the thumb; yellow rubber, does it for most of the girls, not. Still, the blinds were down and no-one could see him. He set about wiping down the tables with his ear phones in, practising his dance moves, and wondering how much booze he should buy to get the party started tomorrow.
“Jaz? You ready yet Jaz? It’s half seven!”
Jazmin mouthed the words as her step mother – known to Jaz and her friends as ‘the steppie’ – shouted up the stairs; same time, same words, same rubbish. She heard a crash and a squeal as her half-sister fell over, or out of the highchair or down the stairs, who cared which one? She wasn’t going down to pick up the pieces, not this morning; she had better things to do. Her phone buzzed and she knew that Ellie was at the end of the road waiting. Spraying her hair one last time liberally with the remaining quarter of a can of hairspray, she grabbed her school bag and went down into the kitchen.
“Jazzy, just hold Eden Rose will you love?” The steppie was trying to clear up the nuclear breakfast attack in the kitchen with a two year old on her hip.
“Sorry, gotta’ go.” Jaz opened the fridge and took a yoghurt off the shelf.
“That hair is a bit excessive for school isn’t it?”
Jaz looked over her shoulder. “Nah, its fine.”
“I don’t think back combing your hair into a bird’s nest and spraying it with enough hairspray to suffocate your head lice is suitable for school, do you?”
“I haven’t got head lice and for your information, everyone does it.”
Eden Rose was struggling to be held. Jaz said; “Not now Edie, Jazzy’s gotta go.”
“Where are you going at seven thirty Jaz? The bus isn’t until eight?”
“Just up the road with Ellie.”
Jaz headed for the front door before she was bombarded with any more questions and slipped on her shoes. As she opened the door her nine month old half-brother crawled from out of nowhere at amazing speed and was through her legs and off the step head first onto the path before she even realised it. Crack; splat. There was a scream; Jaz bent down to pick him up and, as he sobbed, he spat his half chewed biscuit down her tie. “Oh crap.”
“Luscombe? Oh sweetie, come here…” The steppie was at the door and Jaz handed over a still screaming baby. She kissed him before she let him go and got snot on her face. “Bum.”
Eden Rose smiled and said; “Crap bum.”
“See ya!” she called.
She was out the front door. She loved her half brother and sister, despite their pants names, but she really didn’t have time for this now. Ellie had got things fixed up, Jaz had got the money and it was time to do the deal. She’d had enough of being the only one who wasn’t doing it, the only one left behind; things were going to change, and if meant doing this then that was the way it had to be. She saw Ellie on the corner of the street and waved.
“Hi. You ok?
“Yeah. So this guy, he knows his stuff does he?”
“Yup; he deals in quality.” Ellie gently elbowed her friend. “Hey, stop worrying. It’s fine; loads of people do it.”
Ellie smiled. “You don’t fool me with your Northern hard act. It’s not easy fitting in, especially not when you come at the end of year ten.”
“Yeah, well…” Jaz thought about the move south, the last few days at Kingswood Comp, all her mates clubbing together to give her enough money to buy a ticket home if she ever needed it. She said; “It’s not that bad.” Actually it was; it was worse than she’d ever imagined; all those London kids, reckoned they were so smart, with their slang and their hair and clothes, and living with the steppie who was a permanent mess and a permanent nag, and never seeing her dad because he had to work so hard, and not being able to keep up ‘cos she’d missed so much work and they’d lost her file at Kingswood, and the smell of pooey nappies all over the house…
Ellie was looking at her with that look that she had which was all intense and she realised that she was staring off into space again.
“What? Oh, yeah, sorry.”
Jazz took the gum that Ellie passed her and they both stuffed it in, chewing vigorously with open mouths as they walked past the park. Ellie held an empty box of cigarettes in her hand like she was going to smoke them. The group of year elevens from the other side of the year who hung out there before school looked at them; one long, hostile stare and both girls chewed and walked on past. At the corner, out of sight, they stopped and smiled at each other; Ellie spat her gum into the nearest bin. She hated it, it made her jaw ache, but she knew it helped her look less lame. She kept those sorts of girls, the ones with attitude, off her back with a mix of trickery and reputation; she fooled them into thinking that she was something that she wasn’t.
“Come on,” she said to Jaz, who was checking her hair in the shop window; “We need to get a move on if we’re going to get you sorted before the bus comes.” She headed off and Jaz had to double hop to keep up with her.
Jack pulled up the blinds and unlocked the front door. He’d ground the beans for the coffee machine, put the milk into the fridge and laid the sugar pots and flowers on the table. His first punter was due at seven forty five. He checked his watch and turned on the stereo; he liked a nice vibe when he was doing business. Moments later, right on the button, two girls came up and knocked on the window. He recognised the first, Ellie Wrightson - remember the name he’d told Matt who owned the café, because one day that girl is going to be big – he didn’t know the other one, but she looked suitably ditzy; they always did when they came to see him.
“Ellie. Come on in, the café is empty.”
“Cool.” Ellie went in and Jaz followed her. She had no idea that her mouth had dropped open until she caught sight of herself in the mirror over the counter. Whose mouth wouldn’t drop open, she thought, this guy is gorgeous. She snapped it shut and let Ellie do the talking.
“How’s it going?” Jack asked, “Any more thoughts about doing another gig for us here? The last one was amazing!”
“Nah, it’s too close to home. I got away with it once, don’t want to risk it a second time. If my dad ever got to hear about it, he’d kill me.”
“Not changed his mind then?”
“Are you kidding? It’s all about grades with him. He thinks I’m gonna be a doctor. Ha.” Ellie took out her purse. “If I catch you out on the street singing again Eleanor,” Ellie mimicked her father’s flat nasal accent perfectly, “I am going to smash that guitar, smash it to bits.”
“Wow. Well, if he thinks singing is bad, god knows what he’d make of this.” Jack laughed and pulled his bag out from under the counter. “Right, is it one for you and one for your friend? They’re both grade A; I don’t deal in anything less.”
“Not for me Jack thanks; I don’t need it. Just for Jaz. Jaz, you got your money?”
Jaz dug in her bag for her purse. She’d lost the power of speech; she was staring; possibly drooling. Jack glanced at her and smiled. He did this thing with his face; it wasn’t a wink exactly, she thought, but it was like he was including you in his thoughts, just you and him…
“Oh, yeah, sorry. Here.” Jaz handed over fifteen pounds and Jack gave her the goods. She put them away immediately.
“Listen girls, I’m having a bit of a party tomorrow night, at home. Maybe you’d like to come?” What harm would it do, he thought, they both look eighteen and the one with the bird’s nest on her head was quite pretty, if a bit gormless.
“Wow,” Jaz said.
Ellie looked at her and raised an eyebrow. “Thanks Jack, but I dunno; not sure if they’ll let me out.” Jaz’s mouth dropped open again and Ellie tapped her chin as she looked at her again. Jaz closed it.
“We’d better get going,” Ellie said.
“Thanks Jack, you know, for the stuff.”
“No problem ladies. You know where I am.” He showed them to the door. “And I might see you tomorrow?”
“Oh yes, I…” Jaz felt a sharp poke in the ribs.
“You might.” Ellie said. She slung her bag over her shoulder and nodded at Jack. “See ya,” she said.
Jack went inside and put the thirty quid straight into his wallet. It wasn’t cheap, packing his parents off for the night to celebrate their anniversary, but it was just after the mocks for the kids at John Ralph and there’d be loads of them panicking with their results in a week or so; he’d easily recoup the expense of a night away for Mr and Mrs Black. Maybe he should think about taking someone else into the business if he got really busy. Perhaps that was the way to pay for his degree, not slogging away in the café five shifts a week? He’d talk to Alex. If he did expand it would be far easier and safer to keep it in the family.
Ellie turned to Jaz at the bus stop and shook her head. “Catching flies?” she said.
“He’s gorgeous.” Jaz said.
“He’s at university and he won’t even look at you. You’re a year eleven girl from The John Ralph High school. Get a life.”
Jaz narrowed her eyes. “If I didn’t know better Ellie, I’d reckon you had a bit of a crush on him yourself.”
“Get a life,” Ellie repeated tetchily and turned away. The bus came and she was first up the steps, elbowing the younger kids out of the way. She sat down at the back and Jaz joined her a few minutes later.
“Ellie?” Jaz didn’t want to fall out with the only girl who’d shown her any kindness since she’d arrived at John Ralph. She sat down and got her yoghurt out of her bag. “It’s a Muller fruit corner,” she said, offering it up, “Strawberry?”
Ellie took it. All’s fair in love and war. She pulled the top off and licked the inside of it. “Muller fruit corner or not,” she said as she dipped the spoon in and the bus started off. “Forget Jack Black.”
“Jack Black? Is that really his name?”
“Yeah, and forget it. Neither you nor I have got a chance.”
Jaz stared out of the window. That’s what you think, she murmured under her breath.
“What was that?” Ellie asked, sharp and quick.
“I said, this bus stinks,” Jaz answered. She had no intention of sharing her thoughts. All’s fair in love and war.
Alex, five foot ten – “There’s nothing wrong with being tall for your age, everyone else will catch up, blah, blah blah,” said his Mum, “They’ll grow,” said his Dad, - stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom and smoothed the shard of hair on the front of his head to the right of his face. He then smoothed the sides forward and the back across to the right so that he looked as if he’d been caught in a revolving door and spun round at speed on one direction. He looked at himself and sighed. There was too much styling clay on it now to change it and it had to be right because he had a boiler on that side of his forehead, just above his eye. He’d tried popping it, but it was a stubborn one and he’d just made the lump bigger, so now it was a cover up job.
He smiled exposing all his teeth; at least they were all right. He’d just got rid of a mouth full of metal and now looked half human again. He slipped his retainers in. He couldn’t be bothered to clean his teeth; too much effort; he’d buy some mints at the corner shop on the way to the bus.
Downstairs his Mum was dressed and ready for work. She started on about his trousers being too low and that she wished she’d insisted that both boys wore Y fronts because then maybe they wouldn’t feel the need to show their pants, blah, blah, blah. He grabbed his bag, a Ginsters pie from the fridge, his box for his retainers and was out the door with a cursory “See ya!” before she’d finished the bit about discount pants from the market.
He dropped his retainers into the box for now, tore the wrapper off the pie, beef and onion and ate it on the way to the shop; stopping when he’d finished to blow his breath into his hand. Crap – the onion was strong. At the shop he bought two cans of coke, a packet of crisps and some mints. He jangled the change in his pocket as he waited for the bus, confident that he had enough for a couple of bags of sour fizz on the way home tonight. On the bus he sat on his own; did his homework and ate his crisps. His mum would kill him if she knew that he spent all his money on rubbish, but then his mum would kill him if she knew the half of it. Alex put his feet up on the seat in front and relaxed back for the rest of the short journey to school. Both his parents would kill him if they really knew what was going on; him and Jack. The bus stopped outside the school and Alex queued, pushing and jostling with the rest of them to get off. Still, he thought, waving at his mate, there was no way they were ever going to find out. He smiled at Jodie just as a gust of wind lifted the glued sheet of hair off his face to reveal the boiler, now with a nice head on it. Jodie winced. Nope, they had no idea and that was how he intended to keep it. At least for now.