My mate Callum had a broken family.
When his mum dived headfirst over the eighth floor railing of the Headrow carpark, then ricocheted off the bin outside the McDonald’s as though she were a bouncy ball, his dad found love down at The Dog and Pond pub, snuggled in the mechanical arm of the bandit.
When his dad drowned himself in a lumpy pool of Stella and regurgitated doner kebab meat at the number eighty-two bus stop on a drizzly Friday afternoon in September, a couple of social workers wielding clip-boards kidnapped Callum’s seven-year-old sister, Ruby.
When the social workers ransomed Ruby off to a middle-aged couple who wore matching pastel coloured polos and cooed they’d “always wanted a little girl”, but we knew were only in it for the foster money, Callum invited me over and I stood in the overgrown, litter-strewn garden of his parents’ council house with my hands stuffed down into the warm pockets of my trackies, neglected grass handcuffing my knees. I watched Callum shatter all the cloudy single glazed windows in the house, then batter a hole through the flimsy front door using only his fists and his feet.
When the busies turned up, they crammed us both into the backseat of the police car, even after Callum, striped with bruises and blood, insisted I hadn’t done anything. “An accomplice” they called me. I frowned at Callum, peering at him beneath landslide eyebrows, and wondered what the word “accomplice” meant.
The next day Callum came to live with me and my nan, in my nan’s two-bedroom ground floor flat, on a sleepy cul-de-sac reserved for little old ladies who spent their days fingering geraniums in their window boxes and fussing over floral patterns on one another’s net curtains. My parents weren’t in my life. My mum bounced in and out of prison on a shoplifting addiction and she refused to tell me who my dad was.
My family was also broken.
Together, me and Callum slept crushed up in my single bed, our heads denting a pair of matching blue and yellow Leeds United pillows at opposing ends. A defender and a striker from the same football team, each bound by strict rules to his own side of the pitch.
Sometimes, I heard Callum crying in the night. Sometimes, I wondered if I should cuddle him. Sometimes, I felt this weird aching in my arms, like I wanted to, like I should. But I never did.
We were fifteen.
So, when we were twenty-three and Callum called me up to tell me Tina, his fiancée, had left him, and his voice bubbled down the phone as though he were speaking from the bottom of a fifteen-foot swimming pool, I had to do something. I had to make his wrong world right again.
Whatever emotions needed to leak out of Callum’s face had finished by the time I reached his flat in the city centre, with four cans of Stella sweating under my armpit and a quarter of hash wrapped in clingfilm creating a lump in the front pocket of my jeans.
Callum stood on his balcony, eight floors up, bloody knuckles clamped around the railing while the dregs of a red summer evening spilled over the city below him. The wide, boxy frame of his body was tilted forward, rigid, as though stalled in the act of considering the fall. I righted the overturned coffee table in his living room, dumped the cans on it, peeled two from their noose of plastic, then came out onto the balcony behind him. He didn’t move. The air smelt damp and dirty, like concrete after rain, despite the weather’s month-long dry spell.
“Your door appears to have acquired a massive hole in it, so I let myself in,” I said.
“I’ll let the landlord know.” Callum outstretched a hand, I slid a cool can into it. He cracked open the tab and it hissed. He drank without looking at me. “Seven years, Kenzie. Seven years and I find lovey-dovey texts on her phone from that silly little blonde prick she works with down at JD Sports. Can ya believe it?” I could. “Wouldn’t care, but he’s only eighteen. A piece of kid. Can ya imagine, Kenz? Fancying a kid? Ruining your engagement for a kid? Bet he doesn’t even know how to bleedin’ shave yet.”
Callum shook his head as though to disperse the imagery. He’d buzzed his mousey hair to the grain, and I resisted an urge to reach out and touch it. Imagined it would be barbed as Velcro. Below us, streetlights began to drip on in sparse puddles across the darkening city. I leaned against the balcony railing.
“Forget about her,” I said. “She’s a tart. She’s not worth it.”
And I resisted another urge. This time to add the phrase: “she never was”.
Instead, I told him, “Get your glad rags on. We’re going out.”
We downed the bitter contents of our cans in sync. Callum wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, grimacing.
After unearthing a pair of black chinos and a mustard jumper from a wardrobe laying on its side like a downed soldier among the smashed carnage of Callum and Tina’s bedroom, I managed to wrestle a prickling Callum into them. Then I stood in the empty corridor of the eighth floor eyeing the gaping wound in the flat door. It was as though something had been trapped behind it, fighting to get out.
Callum closed the door behind him and stabbed his key in the lock.
“What’re you gonna do about that?” I asked, nodding to the hole.
Whatever hurricane had raged through Callum, savaging his flat, it had created a splintered vacuum so big I’d been able to step through it earlier to let myself inside. If anybody wanted to nick his telly or his Xbox while he pratted about town with me, they wouldn’t need to bother picking the lock.
Callum twisted the key and a precise click of the internal bolt echoed down the corridor.
“Fuck it,” he said. “I’ve nothing left to rob anymore.”
At ten, we stood outside Pulse, a neon sign above our heads flirtatiously flickering All Drinks £1 and dying us purple. An under dressed queue of people snaked along the pavement, giggling excitedly amongst themselves, throttled at the head by two hefty bouncers checking ID’s and stamping backs of hands at the entrance to the nightclub. Me and Callum passed a joint back and forth hoping to get a bit of a buzz on while we waited for the line to thin out.
The dusky smell of the hash drew glances.
“You lads sharin’, or what?” A face encrusted with silver glitter broke through our shield of smoke. Fire escape red hair yanked up into pigtails and wearing a python green dress so tight her belly button dimpled the fabric, the girl swayed close to Callum, her body pitched forward on needle-sharp heels.
Joint clasped between lips, Callum stared. Dense smoke danced spirals between them as he surveyed her; his eyes, the colour of raw honey, slid from head to toe.
The sweet sickness of the girl’s perfume elbowed into my mouth. It spread itself out, thick across the tongue and claggy in the throat. Treacle with tarmac. I coughed. Spat it onto the cracked paving slabs.
“Nah, sorry, love,” I cut in, pulling the joint from Callum’s lips, and waving her away with the back of my hand. “Boy’s night out, like. No girls allowed.”
“Ya’ve gotta be kiddin’ me.” Her eyes darted between Callum and me, then back again, “He’s kiddin’, right? What are ya, twelve?”
The girl recoiled. “Gay.” She scoffed.
As the girl stomped back into the queue, Callum tilted his head to the right, clearly admiring her backside. “Fit, though . . .”
“Yeah?” I asked. “Would you . . ?”
“Would’ve.” He leaned into my arm. Electricity vaulted across my shoulders and I supressed the desire to lean back. “Past tense, ya know.”
Sweaty twenty-somethings and acne-splattered university students packed Pulse’s cavernous interior. Young men and women, eyes black hollows beneath the swooping spotlights and searching strobes, writhed against one another, their bodies agitated by punching vibrations of cyclical dance music. A belly full of maggots, freshly hatched.
I took Callum by the sleeve of his jumper, fearing we might be separated, and battled a zig-zagging path to the bar. A dishevelled barman, inky hair unfurled across a shiny forehead and damp desperation glistening in the lower valley of his neck between an open shirt, pulled us two pints of cider and mixed two glasses of triple Vodka and coke. Callum needed to forget. I did, too.
We slunk into a corner, found a waist high table, blanketed in soggy cardboard beer mats and stinking of spilled Guinness. The hash had loosened the ligaments of our jaws and we babbled about football, music, work, wet mouths skimming earlobes in order to be heard. We drank for an hour, watching mating rituals blur past on the dance floor. Sequined fragments in a turning kaleidoscope.
Callum’s eyes fogged.
“I dunno what to do, mate . . .” His voice slurred and his square thumb explored the rim of a half empty glass. “Seven years down the toilet . . . Seven years for some pleb who prolly still gets pocket money off his mum . . . What do ya do after that? Where do ya go?”
I’d been single for almost as long as Callum had been engaged. I was one of the least qualified people to be giving advice on breakups. While girls flocked to Callum for his square jaw and clear complexion, they shied away from my narrow shoulders, smudgy skin, and smeared freckles. I couldn’t blame them. Callum once said I looked like a bartender’s rag after a long night of sopping up. He’d been kidding on, of course. But it stuck.
Callum went on, “Another drink?” But his eyebrows were crushed into a tense V, his top lip lifting in the suggestion of a snarl.
He wasn’t forgetting. He was getting worse. And my mind conjured the image of his dad, slumped against the graffitied Perspex of a bus shelter, eyes rolled back into his head, steaming vomit filling a takeaway carton in his lap.
I slapped Callum’s forearm. “Let’s dance.”
His entire face puckered. “Ya what?”
“Dance,” I reiterated, jerking a shoulder at the human soup being stirred in circles in front of us, “come on. Sup up. It’s time you let go.”
We didn’t so much “dance”, as simply locate ourselves in the centre of the gyrating crowd, then bounce up and down on the gummy black linoleum, emulating boys who’d lost their pogo sticks, carelessly bumping into each other. The heavy bass surged through the floor and I closed my eyes, picturing jumping beans on a drumskin, hard shells cracking every time they crashed together. The lights painted the inside of my lids a rainbow.
I raised my arms to the ceiling, letting the music stream through me. My body felt soft and limber, weightless every time my feet left the floor. Sweat pooled in the dip of my upper lip and I licked away the salt. If heaven existed, I imagined it would be like this. Me and Callum, dancing to our own heartbeats, rubbing shoulders in the middle of a chaotic world, forever colliding, falling, and picking each other up.
Callum bumped into my back. Once. Twice. Three times in quick succession. Jolted me out of my dream. A squabble of unfamiliar voices rose over the music and I spun around just in time to witness a lanky bloke with a tattooed neck shove Callum backwards. Fear lanced through me. I swung forward as though to pull Callum away, but he’d already launched himself at the other lad. His blunt forehead flattened the guy’s nose as though the cartilage were paper.
The lad staggered back, stunned for a second, then they fell into one another, a blurred fury of fists and knees. The rest of the crowd peeled away from them, chattering in confusion. Vigilant security decked out in reflective vests began to wade into the swarm of people on opposite sides.
“Cal! Cal! Don’t!” I attempted to wedge myself between Callum and his opponent, but one of them socked me in the cheek with an elbow.
I remembered Callum at sixteen, his hands jewelled red with blood, shattered glass raining down on him. I imagined him last night, pummelling his fist into the flat door, unflinching at the wooden splinters stabbed into his skin. And I foresaw this tattooed bloke’s bones crushed to dust on a dancefloor tacky with over-sugared alcoholic drinks.
As one member of security hauled himself between the scrapping duo and another descended on the lad with the tattooed neck, I managed to hook an arm around Callum’s windpipe. It startled him out of his punching spree just long enough for me to dislodge him with a sharp wrench.
He fell into me, snarling. “He pushed me! Shithead pushed me!”
I caught a glimpse of the lad’s face. Blood spewed down his chin like a protest.
“We’re getting out of here,” I said.
Fresh air kissed my cheek as I hauled the bristling Callum out of Pulse. Under my trainers, the pavement outside the club appeared to sink, soft with every footstep, as though stone had crumbled to sand. Sudden silence droned in my ears and I realised the street had emptied, all sign of humanity swallowed by the nightclub. I staggered away, tugging Callum with me.
I knew what happened in nightclub brawls if you made the mistake of sticking around too long. There’d be the static of police radios. Slurred statements. Someone slung in the backseat of a white car.
Cutting sharp slices through the city we dipped in and out of streetlamp search lights, propping one another up, our two shadows bleeding into one.
Callum wanted to find another bar. Kept swivelling towards neon signs, lured by all things bright and dangerous. A moth in the dark. I suggested we seek out a takeaway. Eat something to soak up the booze. I could feel the tension still wound in his arms. Compressed springs ready to pounce.
As we stumbled by The Dog and Pond, Callum veered toward the open doorway, pulled in by the life and the warmth. He slid from my grasp and stood in the entrance. Backlit lager-yellow, the night rendered him featureless, silhouetted, as though someone had cut the precise shape of a man from the world.
I’d never been so desperate to wrap my arms around him in all my life.
The warm spice of an Indian takeaway shimmied down the street. I clamped both hands onto Callum’s shoulders and steered him away from the pub.
In Adeel’s fluorescent white interior, surrounded by the sound of sizzling meats and ensnared by the scent of chicken tikka and chilli sauce, we waited for kebabs. I watched a fly pinball about inside the casing of an overhead strip light. Trapped, wings stammering, it bumped and buzzed, continuously drawn to the hot light, then pinging off, burned. At one point it lay on its back, flailing its legs in surrender.
“How long do you think it can live like that?” I asked. My voice sounded far away; a line spoken by someone else.
Callum answered without looking. Eyes fixed on a man behind the counter, slicing gristly doner meat off a rotating skewer. “Not long, Kenz,” he said, and his voice sounded far away too, thick with drink and disillusion. “Prolly dead by morning.”
When our orders were ready, we paid in loose change, then took our food outside where we parked ourselves on the curb. The beige Styrofoam trays burned our thighs to the bone.
I’d barely taken three bites of my greasy kebab before Callum shunted his aside and started spewing. Head hung low between parted knees, he wretched, expelling a brown, acrid cocktail of cider, vodka, and stomach acid. It splattered into the gutter, flecking his white trainers.
My own stomach somersaulted at the stench. I closed the lid of my takeaway carton. “I’ll bell us a taxi home,” I said.
In an attempt to be comforting, I placed my hand on the back of his neck. It clung to the clammy skin like flypaper.
At first I directed the taxi driver to Callum’s flat. But once the car pulled up outside the tall black building ridged with high balconies and rickety railings, I glanced down at Callum, who lay nauseous across the backseat using my knee as a pillow, and I changed my mind. I gave the address of my nan’s little ground floor flat instead. Figured it would be safer.
I still lived with her, my nan. Still inhabited the same small back room. Still slept in the same small single bed. Callum moved out when he got a job at eighteen, hauling fresh pig carcasses into a freezer at the abattoir, and finally found his footing in the world. He’d invited me to move in with him, said we could split the rent, club together for an eighty-inch LCD telly and spend our Saturdays watching the Premier League and getting stoned, but by that point nan had started to believe she was twenty-one again and began calling me by my granddad’s name. Grandad’s ashes had been sitting above the fireplace for twelve years. Someone needed to stay behind to take care of her.
Nan was asleep when we got in. The flat sat in darkness and I crept to my room with Callum wrapped around me, limp as a coat. I shed him on the bed and, after confirming he didn’t need to throw up again, I tugged off his shoes, then rolled him onto his side, facing the wall. I heeled off my trainers, crammed my body onto the narrow strip of mattress next to him and wedged him there so he couldn’t turn over. If he spewed up in his sleep it’d splatter the wallpaper, but at least he wouldn’t choke.
I lay on my back, staring into the spinning black for a long time. After a while, Callum started sniffling, stifling sobs, and a familiar ache cried out in my arms.
I contemplated the sensation.
I trembled, too.
Then I pulled the duvet up over our heads, cocooning us both.
Perhaps it was the disarming effect of the alcohol softening all sharp edges, or the fear of him slipping out of my grasp forever, but I suddenly slid an arm around Callum. To my surprise he quietened. I pressed my face into the back of his sticky neck and his hand found mine in the dark.
We slept that way, curled together and complicit, until the sun of a new day tip-toed through the curtains, slipped down off the windowsill, and discovered us reborn.
About the Author:
Debbie Hudson is an emerging writer from the north of England whose work aims to give a voice to the often overlooked working class and queer experiences of contemporary Britain. She has been published in Bandit Fiction and is part of the Bandit Fiction team as a critique provider. She is currently working on two novels and a short story collection, all set in the deprived council estates of Britain. When not writing, Debbie is often found serenading her geriatric cat with her guitar cover of Wonderwall. Thankfully, the cat is deaf.
Image by Ukamaka Olisakwe