Northern Line

I ran away but I didn’t run.

It’s not like that song me Da played about the runaway, and the guy takes care of her and keeps her safe. No fucker’s doing that for me.

I knew where the bastard kept the money. So, cool as you like, I took it and walked out, jumped on the bus to Piccadilly, bought a ticket to London and fucked off.

But I didn’t run.

*

My Da was a drunk but he was never mean. He still managed to get himself locked-up, but it was like something out of Frank Spencer.

He’d passed-out somewhere off Rusholme. When he was out a mugging took place in the same alley. He fitted the description and wore similar clothes to the mugger. The lawyer made him sound like a drunk. Which he was. But he wasn’t bad.

That was a year ago. Since then me and Carl have been in the home. It’s shit.

When he wasn’t fuckin’ drunk me Da was clever, funny. He knew things and we would talk. He told me about books to read, we listened to records together all the time and he knew about politics and stuff like that.

I did well at school, but now I’m not even going.

Me mum I never knew.

*

I listened to New Order, The Paragons and Talking Heads all the way down to London. One thing my Da gave me was decent records. I taped them and left them with Carl.

I thought London would be amazing compared to Manchester. Buckingham Palace and all that shite.

But London was a shithole too.

Victoria coach station was full of junkies and weirdoes so I got the fuck out of there.

In W H Smith I bought a Standard to find jobs and somewhere to fuckin live and an NME. I chose Belsize Park because of the Marillion song Kayleigh. I found it on the black line — Northern. That made me smile. Northern. Like me.

I read the paper on the way and circled the places near Belsize Park — there was a few. A punk got off at Camden Town. The rest of the carriage was empty.

Punks are losers my Da says.

*

At Belsize Park I call the agent from the payphone outside the tube and he gives me directions. He had a strong accent and said he is from Cyprus.

When I got there he looked at me like ‘What the fuck you doin ere’, but didn’t say shite. He was short, fat and bald with a little mustache. He showed me around the shittty bedsits and talked about Cyprus.

‘In Cyprus we don’t live like this,’ he said ‘You know your neighbours and you could leave your door open. Not like here,’ he says.

‘Why don’t you go back?’ I says.

‘Opportunity,’ he says after a bit.

‘But look. This is good. Not like Victoria or Kings Cross. This area OK.’

He showed me a room with a window overlooking a small park. ‘It’s the biggest still free — you have for the same price,’ he said. ‘How old are you?’

‘Seventeen,’ I lied.

‘I need one month advance and another month and you can move in today,’ he said.

I got him down on the price a bit. My Da says never pay first price then I paid the money. It was a fuck of a lot but I had the cash so fuck it. I was happy. I got him to give me a receipt and he gave me the keys and everything.

When we sorted everything he asks ‘Your accent? Where are you from?’

‘Manchester,’ I says. ‘I’m not going back.’

*

The room was empty, grey, depressing. I bought paint and a roller at the hardware shop on the corner and found towels, cutlery and bedsheets at the charity shop further down the hill and got a beer from the newsagents. I never had trouble getting served.

I painted the walls and then opened the window and sat on the floor and watched the sun set.

Not as cold as fucking Manchester anyway.

*

The next day I spend the morning calling the numbers in the paper and Loot to find work. A couple are agencies. I have to work out what the fuck ‘agency’ means. A few asks me to come in. I tell them I can type and can work computers. I can’t do fucking either but how fuckin hard can it be?

I put on my best Angela Rippon at the interviews. They fuckin love it, and one lot tell me I can start at some government organisation in Victoria in the morning. They didn’t ask me fuckin shite or test me or anything.

I spend the rest of the day visiting places I heard about in London. Carnaby Street is a dump, full of shite t-shirt shops. Soho is better, with some decent clothes shops and good record shops. I take the bus home when it hits me. Home. My first ever that’s mine. Home.

I celebrate by puttin up posters from the NME. There’s a good pic of Sinead O’Connor and one of Adamski, who’s been number one for ages.

Time to call Carl.

*

One time when I got the hiccups and my da said I shouldn’t worry about drinking out the other side of the glass or that shite, but I should hold my breath till I blow one off.

‘What?’ I says, and he says ‘Yeah — this actually fuckin works innnit so try. Hiccups is annoying so sort it out.’

So I did.

My Da, Carl and some others were there — the house was always full of fuckin people. Anyway. I sat there holding my breath and concentrated until I could squeeze one out.

I had my eyes closed and when I opened them my Da was there, right in front of me, and he says, ‘So you OK?’ I says, ‘I think so.’

‘So you farted then?’ he says. ‘Not very ladylike,’ and he had this fuckin smarmy look. And everyone starts fuckin laffin’ and crackin’ up.

I’m fuckin livid and I says ‘I fuckin didn’t!’ and everyone starts crackin’ up again.

I’m thinkin now that this is a fuckin trick and I’m fuckin pissed off. Right pissed off.

Then my Da says, ‘Well, you ain’t fuckin’ hiccupping any more.’

For a minute I just fuckin sat there and wondered what the fuck.

But it was true — the hiccups had gone. Once I realised, I had this moment when I just couldn’t believe it and yes — the fuckin hiccups had gone and I started crackin up too.

Carl was only little then and he was fuckin crying he was laughin so much. I’m thinking of that now, and I cry a little for my Da and because it was so fuckin funny.

Then I look around. Everyone on the bus has their Walkmans on and shite. So I squeeze one out. Nobody will think a lady done it.

*

My brother Carl is younger than me but sensible. He don’ get in fuckin trouble like I do. He’s stronger than me. He hated the home but he could survive better than me. He didn’t get shit from people all fuckin day like I got. He didn’t come under the bastard’s attention. He didn’t suffer in the same way. But he still wanted out. I’ll get him out.

I dialled the number. The bastard answered. ‘Parkview?’ it did overlook a park, but the park was too dangerous to go into.

I gave it my best newsreader. ‘Can I speak to Carl Banham please?’

There was a pause. He was thinking about the consequences of the question.

‘Who’s askin’?’ he says.

‘It’s social services. We have information about his father’s case.’ I took extra care to pronounce the ‘aitch’ properly.

‘Why don’t you ask about Ellen? You know she’s gone?’ he says.

‘I’m afraid I can’t discuss that with you. We are looking into allegations Miss Banham has made about the running of Parkview,’ I paused here, nervous.

‘Can you put Carl on please?’ I says. Bullies respond to bullying my Da says. Still, my heart was racing because I knew that he knew it was me.

‘Wait a min,’ he said. I couldn’t read anything in his voice.

I waited and looked at the graffiti around the payphone. There was a smiley face and the word ‘Shoom’ Someone else had written ‘RAMPLING IS GOD’. I didn’t know Rampling. A footballer?

Someone I didn’t see left by the front door. The wait can’t have been more than two minutes.

‘‘Ello?’

‘Carl? Is that Carl Banham?’ I squeaked, the accent wobbling.

‘Ummm, yeah? Who wants to know?’ he asked.

I kept it up for a second longer. ‘Can you hold the line please, we have someone to speak to you,’ I said in my best newsreader.

‘Dad?’ said Carl.

‘Carl don’t freak out it’s me Ellie.’ I said, letting my real voice slip back. ‘Don’t say anything.’ I could hear him breathe in. ‘If you can talk, say ‘Yes Miss’ and if you can’t, say ‘I don’t think so Miss’.’

There was a pause. ‘It’s fine. Where are you?’

‘London. I’m gettin’ meself sorted out. I’m not comin’ back. You OK? Sorry about leavin’ like tha’.’

‘He went mental. He says you took money. It were fucking great,’ he said.

I smiled, then started to worry. ‘Did he hurt you?’

‘A bit, but it was worth it. Look I’m fine. OK?’

We talk for a good few minutes. Carl’s fine and everything has blown over I think. I miss him and worry about him. I tell him I took the wanker’s money and he laughs.

I ask Carl, “Who’s Rampling? Is he a footballer?’

‘Who? I dunno. Look…’ a pause. ‘I don’t think so Miss.’

‘OK. Look. I’m going to get you out, but it might take a while. I’ll call next week. Wait at the phonebox by the newsagents at the same time and we can talk then. But I’m alri’.’

He didn’t reply.

‘Love you Carl.’

‘Yes Miss.’

*

First day at work was fuckin’ amazing. The Government department is The Lord Chancellor’s Department and apparently my job is to do fuck-all.

My boss is Lorraine who is very fat and complains about everything in the office — the carpet, the windows, the computer. Everything. She says even the building has ‘sick building syndrome’ which means it makes everyone depressed. I fuckin’ laugh. How can someone get a building built that’s basically completely shite? Must have cost a fortune. How is that even possible?

Down the corridor from Lorraine is Mike who is the Union rep. He reminds me of my Da. He says I should join the Union and then I can get to strike if things get to that. I said sign me up.

Mike does literally nothing. He has terrible eyesight and the computer has a screen to make the words fuckin massive so he can see them.

When he’s not talking the Union or arguing with Lorraine he watchin’ this thermometer to see how warm it is. He says if it goes above 26 degrees then everyone’s out.

It’s difficult to see exactly what everyone is supposed to be doing. I do some ‘filing’ which means putting a load of files in date order. It’s a piece of piss but boring. Lorraine says I’m good and I’ll be doing more tomorrow.

When tomorrow comes Lorraine says the first day was to see if I could tell my arse from my elbow and now I was onto the big stuff.

She says to follow her, and she waddles like fuckin Daffy Duck to another part of the building and she opens a door. ‘What you think?’ she says. It’s a big room full of fuckin files. I mean full. Hundreds — thousands maybe.

‘You can say no,’ says Lorraine.

‘It looks ace, I says.

*

Life is strange. I had worked in Kwik Save on the weekends and the evenings but that was about it.

When Da got sent down I left school because it was too heavy. When I told Da he went fuckin mental. I was good at school. He said I was clever. I don’t feel clever.

Now I’m working in London for this fuckin government department and I don’t even fuckin know what the department fuckin does. My job is so fuckin easy a proper wally could do it in his sleep.

But it’s mine.

*

I go to work, I come home and I listen to my Walkman or wander around London. Tonight I put on Rum, Sodomy and The Lash. I remember seeing The Pogues on TV and I didn’t get it at all. Playing fuckin Irish music? Fuck that. And their singer looked like he was, what? Fuckin dead?

My Da fuckin loved them and made me listen to it over and over. Some albums you get sick of but this is bulletproof and gets better and better. He sings about drinkin’, war and rovin’, whatever the fuck that is, and it’s fuckin ace. I’ve listened to it a million times and I’m nowhere near sick of it.

Tonight I walk to Camden and there are posters of smiley faces everywhere and for Shoom. So it’s a night? Rampling is on the same poster. He’s the DJ?

*

At work there’s a canteen. I eat there and read NME or Melody Maker. I catch more about Rampling and the nights in London. They play this electronic music. I don’t get it. But people are losing their shit about these fuckin parties.

Dave comes up. He’s one of Mike’s cronies and helps him with the Union. He’s younger than most of the others here but still loads older than me. He sees me reading the NME and he’s reading over my shoulder.

‘Can I help you,’ I says.

‘Have you been then,’ he says, his eyes wide.

‘What?’

‘Shoom, Future, The Trip..’ he says.

‘No I says.’

‘Come — we’re gonna go to The Trip on Saturday.’

‘Umm. I don’t think so,’ I says.

‘If you change your mind you know where I am,’ he says.

He’s not moved. ‘What’s it like,’ I says.

‘The best fackin thing I have ever been to or ever done in my whole fackin life.’

He’s a Londoner or from Essex and speaks like Del Boy.

I ask Lorraine about him. ‘Oh he’s a sweetheart — a nice boy,’ she says.

Maybe I should go.

*

Dave picks me up at 6 on the Saturday.

From the outside my place looks fuckin’ amazing, only looks like a shithole from the inside. What the fuck he thinks about me and what I’m doing, fuck knows.

He’s with two friends — a girl and a boy. Both are friendly. Anyway, he says there’s a change of plan and we are not going to Shoom or whatever, but to a rave in a field.

I’m less than delighted and think about diving out. He sees my face and says ‘It’ll be fun. Honest.’

Off we go.

*

On the M25 we stop at service stations to get directions and make calls from payphones. I have no fucking idea where I am. We go to about three different ones to make calls when we see some other cars and Dave says, ‘They know’, pointing.

‘You know where the party is?’ shouts Dave. They say to follow.

Half an hour later we are in the middle of fuckin nowhere in a convoy of cars and things look totally shite.

Ten minutes of drivin through fields and suddenly there’s music. Or not music, just boom-boom-boom of a drum.

Suddenly there’s excitement. We park. There are cars fuckin everywhere, all parked any which way. Everyone legs it towards the music.

I don’t know what the fuck’s going. I follow.

There’s a small valley, full of loudspeakers, a stage, lights and hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, all dancing like mad.

What the fuck?

*

The music is all loud and thump-thump-thump. Everyone looks mental.

*

Dave comes back over smoking a menthol cigarette, chewing gum like mad and glass-eyed.

‘How you enjoying it?’ he says.

‘It’s fun,’ I says. It was fun.

‘So what’s your story?’

‘I ran away from my care home. I need to get my shit together. Then I can get my brother out too.’

‘Care home? How old are you?’

‘Fifteen.’

He stares at me. ‘FIFTEEN?’

He just stares, chewing. I feel small, like I’ve admitted to too much.

After a while he takes a drag on his ciggy and his eyes roll into his head. He says, ‘You are the luckiest person here. Easily the youngest too. Look around you. The world is changing and it starts here. You’ve got a headstart.’

He came and gave me a hug. He was all sweaty. He hugged me like a brother and I started to think that everything was going to be better.

I didn’t cry. I don’t cry. But I felt happy. Hopeful.

This story won the 2016 Winston Fletcher Fiction Prize. My sincere thanks to the committee.

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