I ran home from school and slammed the front door behind me. Some of our neighbours owned their homes but we rented ours, in the middle of an old estate. It wasn’t the poshest part of Gillingham – understatement. Loads of gardens were just junk yards. A sodden mattress had lain in next door’s front garden for weeks, turning black with mould. Rows of garages stood behind the houses. Half of them had their locks smashed, and were decorated with graffiti, which at least added colour to the peeling white paint. Still, it was home.
“Jess,” Mum shouted at me from the living room, “the glass in that door is cracked already! You’ll have it falling out, slamming it like that. Who’s going to pay to get it mended?”
The crack was Dad’s doing. He’d chucked a brick at it after Mum threw him out last month. Again.
I didn’t answer her. I was already scavenging in the fridge, pulling out half a cucumber, and a plastic box containing left-over potatoes and carrots from Sunday dinner, to see what was at the back. “Mum, there’s no orange juice!”
“I know, and I’m not buying any more till next week. There’s plenty of water in the tap.”
I grabbed a mug from the draining board, filled it at the sink, and carried it to the living room. Mum was working through a basket of ironing. She was dressed in her usual boring jogging pants and T-shirt, hadn’t bothered with make up, and frankly could have done with a decent hair cut, though I didn’t say so. She kind of smiled, but not really. “How was your day?”
I pulled off my shoes without untying the laces and slumped into one of the fraying armchairs. “Mrs Gilbert gave me 37% for my history assignment, and I’d spent ages on it. She said it didn’t show much evidence of original thought. Said it gave the impression I’d rushed it. And I’d spent three hours doing that last week! Plus, at lunch break I couldn’t find my bag, and it’s got my maths and French books in it.”
“Did you look for it?” Mum asked.
“Everywhere! There’s no sign of it. Somebody’s either nicked it, or hidden it, just to be nasty.”
Mum sighed. “Not again! You should tell Mr Howard.”
“I already did. He’s useless. I bet it’s Alice Davies and her gang. I challenged her, but she just laughed at me.”
Mum looked up. “She’s not still bullying you, is she?”
“She and her mates have quit punching me when no one’s looking. But she still keeps making comments, insinuating that I’m thick, or telling everyone that Dad’s in trouble with the police.”
“You’re not thick, and your dad isn’t in trouble with the police – as far as I know.” Mum pursed her lips as she folded one of my school shirts and placed it on a pile of clothes on the other armchair. “He’s got plenty of faults, and I’m relieved he’s not living with us any more.”
“Alice annoys me because her mum’s always buying her new gear, and I have to make do with the same old clothes, or stuff from charity shops. Her mum always looks smart, too, like she’s just stepped off a cat-walk.”
“And your mum looks like a rain-soaked cat, I suppose?”
“I didn’t mean that, Mum, but neither of us have the money to walk into real shops and buy whatever we like, do we?”
“I’m sorry I can’t always be getting you and Brendan the same as other kids, but at least we haven’t got a house full of strife, which is the case for lots of the people who live round here.” Steam spat from the iron as Mum slammed it down.
“No strife now,” I said, “but we had plenty the last time Dad was staying.” Mum had let him back again on condition he didn’t drink. It only lasted three days. The third day he went out after dinner and came home late. I expect he’d been down the pub. Mum sent Brendan and me upstairs, but we could hear all the shouting. Then there was the sound of broken glass – I found out next morning that was the telly. Then there was more shouting. Finally the front door slammed, and seconds later came the sound of the brick hitting the glass. “So when are you going to get the front door repaired?”
“When I’ve got some spare cash. I already owe money to the cash lenders, and I don’t want to take out another loan this month. And, by the way, I’ve told your dad I’m not having him back. We’ve done it too many times, and it doesn’t work. So that’s it now.”
I stared at her. “So we’ll just carry on with no money, and make do without anything new, ever?” I asked. It might have sounded selfish, but honestly, it wasn’t new stuff I really cared about. Why couldn’t we just be a normal family? Mum just shrugged her shoulders, but I could see she was upset, too, so I changed the subject and decided not to think about Dad. “Are there any crisps left?”
“No, and I shan’t be getting any unless they’re on special offer. Anyway, you’ll be having your dinner soon.”
“Maybe I should get a paper round, now I’m thirteen. Then I could keep my own personal supply of crisps and fruit juice in my bedroom.”
“I’m not sure I fancy you being out in the streets on your own in the early morning. Anyway, what are we going to do about your bag?”
“Mr Howard said that unless I could prove someone had stolen it, there’s not much he could do. He said sometimes things turn up in the lost property room.”
“Well I can’t afford to buy you another one. There’s a bag in the wardrobe in my bedroom that your dad used to take to the gym. You can have that.”
“What’s for tea, Mum?”
“Fish and chips.”
“From the chippy?” I asked, hopefully.
“No, they’re too expensive – out of the freezer.”
“As usual! Where’s Brendan, anyway?”
“Dexter’s mum collected them both from school.” Brendan’s my nine-year-old brother. The two loves of his life are football and food – especially food. He eats and eats, but never seems to get any fatter. “Dexter invited Brendan to play football with him,” Mum continued. “Sophie’s bringing him back in the car after they’ve eaten.”
“I wish we had a car.”
“So do I, but you know full well why we haven’t.”
“I know, I know, no money, boooring!” I said. “It would be nice to be rich, even if it was only for a week.”
“Well, we’re not rich, and in fact…” my mother stopped herself.
“In fact, what?” I asked.
“I wasn’t going to say it, but you might as well know.”
I sat up. “Know what?”
“I tried to draw out some money at the cash machine last week, and discovered we were overdrawn. I rang up the bank, and found out that your dad had withdrawn all the money from our savings account as well, about two months ago.”
I stared. “So does that mean we’ve got nothing?”
“Now that your dad’s left, I’m having to claim as a single parent, but it always seems to take the benefits people ages to sort it out.”
“So we’ll be OK eventually?”
“There’s another problem. The landlord wants us out. I got a letter.”
Now I was really shocked. “The man who owns our house? But we haven’t got anywhere else to go! He can’t get rid of us!” I felt a panic coming over me.
“He can. We’re behind on the rent. I thought your dad had been paying it, but he must have spent the money on drink. Now the landlord says the rent hasn’t been paid for months. He’s said he wants us to move out in two months, if we can’t pay up. It’s all in the letter.”
I stared at Mum. “Surely we can do something? What about the council?”
“I think he’s within his rights,” she said.
“What if we refuse to move?” I said.
“He can get an eviction order from the courts.”
“Where will we go?” I asked anxiously.
“We’ll have to apply for emergency housing.” Mum ironed her duvet cover like it was the landlord, or my dad.
“Emergency housing? What does that mean?”
“It might mean the council put us in bed and breakfast accommodation, until they find something else.”
“But I won’t go. I want to stay here!” I said, getting up and stamping my foot. “This is my home! And Brendan’s. And yours!”
“We may have no choice,” Mum said with a grimace.
“All because Dad wasted the money! This is the worst day of my life!” I burst into tears, ran upstairs and threw myself on my bed. Why did everything have to be so awful?
I reached for my teddy bear. Rodney’s always been there for me, since I was a baby. I clutched Rodney to my chest, and sobbed into my pillow.