Virginia always took the same route through this shithole: a weathered mining village that was forgotten after Thatcher and left to rot. Somehow, in this part of the neighbourhood, all the greys of the concrete, mud and sky seem to bleed together and combine in the rain. She hid underneath her hood. There was an element of grey about her, too: a cold deadness in those eyes, a separation reflected in them, in which she stood on one side and the rest of the world lined up against her… and yet, there was a strange wistfulness present, too. As if Alice fell down the rabbit-hole and found Hell.
Her smile was abstract, obscure. When she did smile, there were only two variations, both outrageous in their forgery; one, more of a sneer, expressing near-evil pleasure derived from watching the world shit on someone else for a change (but even this is exaggerated – her savage joy is saved for special occasions); the other, her speciality, a humourless farce, a skin-merely-stretched-across-scaffolding smile – no genuine joy or twinkle of childish delight beaming out of her. Her soul was smog. In company, if you offered her a sweet, she would turn it down, declaring the sugar a dental attack and ridiculing the offer, even if you suspected that secretly her heart yearns for a friend, a real one, who she could maybe share with… maybe then, she could find pleasure in feeling the rough texture of the candy sugarlump against her tongue, or in slurping the sherbet from sachets. She doesn’t seem to believe that person exists, however, and so she would ensure her rebuke was scathing; the best form of defence is attack – or so she has learnt. She currently needed no Gobstopper; she probably believed she had nothing to say anyway.
She tried to envelope herself in the surrounding grey and fade into the background, but the disguise seemed to keep stealthily sneaking away from her, leaving her vulnerable to the rest of the world. So, silently, she walked, almost creeping: her shoes were scuffed and ill-fitting. She deliberately stepped on the cracks, in an attempt to break her mother’s back, but funnily enough when Virginia closed the front door behind her at 3:15 her mother’s voice still rung out, clear as anything despite the slur. She didn’t know, or care, what was said – she had stopped listening a long time ago…
She heard the dull, familiar clunk of a glass bottle which confirmed her suspicions. Her mother rarely had anything to say worth listening to when she’d had a couple (or more)… surely today was no different. She climbed the stairs, her feet dragging along an aged, dirty-looking carpet the colour of terracotta, her toe scuffing on every step. She closed the bedroom door, stood silently for a few minutes with her back against the door, as she had done a thousand times before. She exhaled exaggeratedly, performing, it seemed, for the room. There was no one else to fool here. She looked over to the unmade bed and her teddies and stuffed animals, her only friends.
She was a young thirteen: there was only a small inclination that her breasts would one day grow, swell, bulge even, or that she would not have the fine blonde hair of a child on her legs forever, that one day it would grow dark and prickly, like thorns. A mess of dirty blonde hair seemed to be trying to escape her; it contorted and writhed in uneven waves that stuck out at random – there was a particularly aggressive flick of hair that always poked out behind her left ear that made her look like a scruffy, overgrown child, much younger than she was.
She had much older hands though; they seemed to have existed long before she did. The dirt wedged firmly under those cracked, splitting fingernails implied years of dedication to a filthy, tiring job, yet hers was the product of childish games and daydreams (her toy panda as the protagonist), played in the grit and dirt outside the house, in the wasteland her mother had the cheek to call a garden. She would lie on her belly for hours, sprawled on top of a couple of the scarce clumps of grass (zombie scarecrow hands reaching out of the dirt), playing make-believe, occasionally glancing up at the dereliction of the estate. These shitholes, these shacks-they-call-houses, were cramped, terraced prisons, standing toe-to-toe like awkward-feeling commuters sandwiched between each other on the rush-hour train. Virginia wouldn’t have minded an elephant in the room, but wished desperately for the drunken parent in the lounge to vanish. She could never stand to be in the house for long when that train-wreck was home.
Trying to ignore drunken snores from downstairs, she took her broken-legged, pitiful little panda out of her pocket, sat it in the palm of her hand, then offered her captive an invitation to escape through the open window. As always, though, the panda remained still. Virginia was glad; she had always been fond of it. It was familiar, reliable. It might not win many beauty contests, but then again, neither would she. She had always thought of herself as awkward-looking (not ugly, just disproportioned), something that her peers had no qualms with pointing out on regular occasions. Still, she had never taken to make-up, high heels and pretty dresses in the way other girls her age had. The contrast between her and those pastel-clad princesses did not work well for Virginia. She had shown no real desire to paint herself like a geisha girl in an attempt to attract one of the sweaty, clumsy handed, pimple-riddled man-boys she had to share a classroom with daily… not that any of them would try that with her. She was more of a game, a sport, to tease, to laugh at. One of them had tried to undo her bra through her t-shirt in double Maths one day whilst balancing precariously on two legs of his wobbling chair: she had spun round in her seat, looking him full in the face for the very first time, before slamming her tightened fist down heavily on his supporting hand, sending him sprawling. For a moment, there had been a spark behind her eyes, a savage enjoyment – you could imagine her pulling the wings off a fly with much the same expression on her face. She struggled to trust anyone.
The train-wreck was throwing up; the sound clattered insensitively up the stairs. It was usually Virginia’s job to ensure something suitable was underneath her drooling mouth, but the thought of entering the place that foul creature had inhabited for the last three days (she hadn’t come to bed or left the house or gone for a piss or anything – the throwing up was the only proper indication heard that guaranteed she was not dead) would make anyone’s skin crawl. So, instead, she exited stage left – out into the garden, into her daydream world.
She dusted herself down, illogically, before she took up her spot and settled her elbows into pre-worn dents in the ground, ready to watch the nothingness of life happen. She watched neighbours walk past one another and neglect to say anything, avoiding eye contact all the while. She watched a group of six or seven children, of varying ages, playing a game with constantly-mutating rules, seeming to be based on ‘Tag’. It never crossed her mind to ask if she could play with them: she had lived with the assumption that the answer would always be ‘no’, delivered in acidic tones, for much longer a time than a child should have. She lay there, observing passively, saying nothing, walking her beloved panda back and forth across a make-believe Saharan desert, still, like a lizard baking in the sun – not much chance of that here, though. The clouds made a mockery of sunshine; that poor fireball didn’t stand a chance.
The shouts and squeals of the game intruded on Virginia’s daydream and brought her back to Earth with a bump. Mrs. Otterman emerged from behind one of the countless corners that led to a scruffy little jitty linking to Barker Grove, half-dragged by a yappy little terrier. Little Jaffa was her pride and joy, with his tufts of uneven fur and slightly mismatched eyes. She struggled with her bulging shopping bags as the dog jerked her hand excitedly between lampposts; their tatty canvas stomachs could barely hold the treats they were laden with. Mrs. Otterman had always been an indulgent woman, even in her youth, but since the death of her husband her self-pity had ballooned and taken over. Every day, rain or shine, Virginia would see her carting this collection of cakes and chocolates and biscuits back from the little corner shop down the way, led by Jaffa. Virginia had once offered to help her carry some of her shopping but had been rudely dismissed. Since then, Mrs. Otterman deliberately looked past her in the street, as if Virginia had simply turned to vapour and no longer existed. If the terrier sniffed happily at her feet she would jerk his leash and make him yelp. Virginia hated her for it: she had decided to sneak him dog biscuits whenever she got the chance.
A couple of the children, lost in their game, strayed into the saggy, waddling woman’s path. Items from her shopping were knocked to the floor in the collision: two apple turnovers, squelching and full of cream, fell into the muck and fag-ash and bubblegum, meeting the urban decoration of the pavement’s surface. A lone orange rolled into the gutter. The children laughed. It was a cruel sound. They did not help the woman gather her items. The smallest of the three boys, dressed undoubtedly in an elder sibling’s hand-me-downs, kicked the orange as far as he could down the potholed, twisting road winding out of sight, leading to places different in name, and yet exactly the same. The skin of the orange ruptured as it met his shoe – with a wallop it was gone, save the guts and mush left smeared on his sneaker. Jaffa, joyful, barking, leapt after it; Mrs. Otterman’s loose, distracted grip on the leash was easily broken. He dashed into the road, focused on his prize, unaware of his surroundings.
The impact was quick but painful. The culprit, a neglected-looking Ford Escort with flaking paint, in the familiar red of a post-box, its front bumper held together with duct tape, flattened the dog without difficultly. The noise it made was sickening. Virginia tried to protect her ears from the sound. Then, motionless, she watched its paw spasm in its final moment of life. Mrs. Otterman howled like a dog, over and over, knelt in the blood beside him. The kids ran away, horrified. Virginia lay still and watched silently. The only indication that she had witnessed the event was a tell-tale crease of her forehead and defensive hand moved to cup her beloved panda. In her mind, she replayed the crunch: it contrasted starkly with the happy yelps it had made (and it was an ‘it’ to her now, now it was void of life) just moments before. She lay unmoved. A single tear was shed from those eyes, less than you would expect from a child her age, but they looked deader than ever. After a while, she rose and dusted herself off with unnecessary focus, ignoring the increasingly desperate cries emitting from Mrs. Otterman.
Virginia re-entered the prison house, her feet dragged behind her, and walked dejectedly inside, up to her bedroom, older somehow. She told no one… who could she tell? Dutifully, robotically, she reached into her worn rucksack to retrieve her exercise books and started her homework. She did not notice until later that in the corner of each page she had drawn a dead dog.