Fairy tale ending
(Saturday, 28 May)
Rosy’s rescuer had arrived, thank God. She watched the Fiesta right-turn into the car park: Findlay, her knight in dented armour, here to whisk her away from her handsome ex prince.
She shouldered the purple Karrimor she’d rammed with as many clothes as would fit — dirty along with clean, and likely some of Jen’s in there too. Not that Jen would notice. Her flatmate had more lingerie than the Ladyboys of Bangkok. Rosy straightened her duvet, then joined her pal in the lounge.
“I can take little Justin if you like,” Rosy said. “If you’re worried about changing him.”
Jen folded her arms. “He’s a goldfish, Rosy. I’ll manage.”
“He likes the plant, not the diver.” She picked a piece of fluff off Jen’s sparkly cardigan. “The diver unsettles him.”
In slippers, Jen had to reach up to help untwist the straps on Rosy’s shoulders. “Wouldn’t it be better just to tell Boog he’s dumped?”
Rosy shook her head, eyes closing at the notion. “He’s freaked me out now.”
Last night, a shining-eyed Boog had shown her how to decode his cipher tattoo. She’d faked a smile, then retreated to Jen’s flat, chained the door and bolted it, top and bottom.
“If he asks,” Rosy said, “tell him… tell him my gran took a tumble, so I’ll be staying with her for a while.”
“Which gran?” Jen said, then shrugged. “He will ask.”
Rosy was tempted to say Franny, Frank-the-Raper’s mother. Instead, she held her friend’s arms. “I didn’t say which.”
Her flatmate exhaled a sigh, nodded, then eased open the front door. The crack and creak of the hinge made them both wince.
“Bye, babes,” Jen whispered. “Take care.”
Rosy mouthed a goodbye, then stepped out into the danger zone.
Two doors along, Boog’s flat. A corridor and two flights of stairs between Rosy and sanity. Boog could be there right now, eye to the peephole, or ear to the letterbox. Boog with his tattoo. Waiting for her. Stalking her, as he must have stalked her from the start.
Rosy ghosted along the hallway, her trainers whispering on the carpet. Once through the fire door, she quickened her pace, and broke into a run to the stairwell where she checked herself, forced herself to slow down. Her story had to be credible: Assumed you’d be studying. Didn’t want to disturb you.
All the way down the stairs, she expected to hear Boog call out to her.
When Rosy unlatched the main door, the sounds of cars passing on Edinburgh’s Slateford Road rushed in, and her anxiety rushed out. Saturday. A fresh May morning and no university for months.
Forty feet away, Mum’s Fiesta slouched across two parking spaces. Good old Findlay. She crossed from the red brick building and unslung her backpack ready to dump it onto the back seat.
The door handle resisted her fingers and thudded back.
She knocked the window, then bent down and peered into the car.
Rosy gnawed her lip, looked around. Where the hell did Findlay go?
Findlay walked around another corner and felt his stress levels fall, even before he’d cadged a ciggie. His fellow addict, dressed in jeans and a Nike T-shirt, must be Rosy’s age. Handsome, athletic, a real pussy-magnet, no doubt — lucky bastard.
“Sorry,” Findlay said. “I’m all out. How’d you like to save a guy’s life?”
“No wuckas,” the kid said, and tapped out a Marlboro. “You’re Rosy’s stepdad, aren’t you?”
Findlay’s eyebrows raised. “That’s right.”
“I’m at Heriot-Watt with Rosy,” the kid said. “I stay in the flat two doors down.” He smiled. “Stunning girl. Just beautiful.”
“She certainly is,” Findlay said.
The kid thumbed a light from his Zippo, then nodded across the car park and said, “Look at that fat bastard. As if cleaning that fucking car is going to help his chances.”
Findlay looked across, straight into the hairy arse-crack of a fat guy hunkering down to clean the alloys of an Alfa Romeo. “Thanks for that,” he laughed, and turned away. He inhaled and held the smoke, felt it revitalise him, then breathed out. “Classic car though.”
“GTV, yeah. But look at the registration. That’s 1997, for fuck’s sake. Cost a fucking fortune.” The kid’s cigarette wagged as he spoke. “I drive a Clio. Three years old. Souped up a bit. It’s the mutt’s nuts.”
“Rosy doesn’t drive yet, hence Findlay to the rescue.” Not that he minded.
“To the rescue?” the kid said. “You’re not just through for a visit then?”
“No. Last minute change of plan. Not sure why. She wants to come home now.”
“Does she? Interesting.” The kid rubbed a balled fist — no doubt to show off he had biceps. The swirls of some indecipherable tattoo stuck out below the sleeve of his T-shirt.
Findlay always loved to see young guys ruin their looks. Honking big tattoos, rivets through the nose, earlobes stretched to busting over hoops you could pass a golf ball through, those were great. Welcome to Planet Ugly. Have a cigarette.
“Findlay. Findlay…?” The kid snapped his fingers.
“Findlay Dickson.” The kid pointed. “That’s right. I knew it was Findlay. You live over the other side of Edinburgh, don’t you? Over towards…?”
“Duddingston?” Findlay said. “Yeah, Northfield Terrace. Ex-council house.”
“That’s the one. Think that’s just down the way from my aunt’s,” the kid said. “Northfield Terrace. Must key that into the sat nav. Small world, isn’t it? Nowhere to hide.”
“Not these days. People can zoom into your back garden.”
The kid laughed. “I know. Isn’t it great?” He flicked his cigarette. “Look, look.” He nudged Findlay. “There’s one for the ladies.”
Findlay turned and the fat guy was reaching up, washing the roof, big hairy belly wobbling over his jeans.
Findlay tutted. “Must be twenty stone at least.” He laughed. “He’s so young too.” Magic. Feed him more pies.
“Unhealthy lifestyle. Eating shit. No exercise. What would any woman see in that?” the kid said, then waved back in the direction Findlay had come. “Look, there she is,” he said. “There’s our beautiful Rosy… Oh, hold on. What’s up?”
Rosy had come around the corner then stopped dead. She beckoned Findlay with her head.
Findlay’s heart inflated. She’d been away all semester. Look at her. Just look at her. To think this was the gawky girl he’d raised from a baby. Having her back home would be like filling every room with flowers. Hot, sexy flowers he’d love to sniff.
Rosy beckoned him again.
“Duty calls.” Findlay pinched out his cigarette, and looked down at his pasty legs poking from the bottom of his shorts and his sandalled feet with their nicotine yellow toenails. Oh, to be a young stud. Even a tattooed one. He popped the ciggie into his top pocket. “I’ll enjoy the rest later. Thank you. Nice to meet you… er?”
Behind Findlay, somebody shouted Rosy’s name, and he turned to see the fat kid wipe his dripping nose on his arm, then start to walk across, grinning.
“I’m Crawford,” his young smoking pal said. “And that fat fuck is my flat mate, Boog. He’s Rosy’s boyfriend.”
Crawford grinned at him. “She’s not interested in me. Believe me, I tried.” He shrugged. “What’s a man to do?”
Boog waved at Rosy, then recognised the man standing beside Crawford: Rosy’s stepdad. His picture was on Rosy’s Facebook page — and in the photos Boog had sneakily downloaded from Rosy’s phone — hence burned into Boog’s brain like the days of the week, or the three-times table.
Vital to make a good first impression. Boog dusted down the front of his sweaty Smile, Dipshit T-shirt, drew in his gut, then skipped across the car park to meet the great man.
“Looking sharp, Boog,” Crawford said, then clicked him a wink, deposited his cigarette butt, and said, “Great to meet you, Findlay,” to Rosy’s stepdad.
Rosy made awkward introductions and Boog’s smile faded. Why the backpack? Was Rosy off for the weekend without telling him?
Findlay didn’t shake Boog’s extended hand. Turned his back, in fact.
“What happened to your other boyfriend,” her stepdad said. “The good-looking one? What’s-his-name…? Renoir?”
Boog’s jaw set.
“Ruben?” Rosy said.
“Yes, Ruben. What happened to Ruben?” her stepdad said, then moved between them, the little shit-stirrer.
Apparently, Boog had failed the audition.
“How can you have a different boyfriend already?” Findlay said.
Boog flinched. “What does he mean, already? And what’s with the backpack?”
Findlay turned on him. “I mean,” he said, through raggedy yellow teeth, “she already has a proper boyfriend. She’s spoken for. And she’s coming home—”
“Dad,” Rosy said, loud enough to cut them both off. “Can you give me two minutes with Boog, please?” She raised her hands to the straps of her Karrimor. “I’ll give you this.”
Boog watched her shrug free of her backpack, all else forgotten for a moment, waiting for the tiniest glimpse of her bra… Damn it.
Rosy handed the pack to her stepdad. “I’ll see you back at the car.”
Findlay’s mouth hardened to a slit and when he spoke, his voice trembled. “Two minutes.”
Boog reached to pick up Rosy’s hands, but she drew away, folded her arms. He rubbed the back of his neck. “You’re not seeing Ruben again, are you?”
“No, of course not.” She scowled.
Boog loved Rosy’s scowls. He loved every expression her face could make. He tried to put his arm around her.
Rosy backed away. “Quit it, and listen, okay?”
Boog closed the gap she’d opened up, wanted her in his personal space, knew she couldn’t resist the magnetic lure of the cuddlemeister, the safety of him. Earthquakes, bombs, zombie attacks. His body, her shield. Her impenetrable love shield. “Listening.” He folded his own arms and smiled, leaned in.
“We need to turn the volume down. You and me. Both of us. For a bit.”
Ice formed in his stomach. “Rosy? You’re not… dumping me, are you?”
“No, ’course not,” she said.
He followed her rapid glance to her bracelet. That was an old bracelet, not the Ortak one he’d bought her. Boog’s eyes prickled. He waved his hand under her face to make her look at him. “So what does turning the volume down mean, exactly?”
“It means, get some perspective,” she said. “Look what’s happened to you. You’re flunking out.”
He shook his head. “I’ll pass the re-sit.”
“How, exactly? When you’re not with me, you’re at your car.” Her brow wrinkled. “Why haven’t you been studying anyway, Boog? Why do you need to re-sit?”
Boog leaned closer so they touched arms. “Rosy, you’re more important to me than any university degree.” She had to know that by now, surely?
“I think,” Rosy said, and stepped back, “it would help if I weren’t here, distracting you—”
“So I’ve decided to spend summer with my folks.”
Boog’s eyes widened. “Oh, no, Rosy, no—”
Rosy held her fingers to his lips then pulled them away before he’d even been able to kiss them. She folded her arms again, and the action pressed her breasts up. And even in his distress, the flash of white lace fulfilled him. White bra today.
“I don’t want an argument, Boog,” she said, and backed away again. “Listen, I have to go. I can’t keep my stepdad waiting.”
“Cuddle?” Boog said and assumed the position.
She frowned, then let him hug her. He kissed her hair. Midnight blossoms.
“Kiss?” he breathed into her ear, but she pushed him off.
“Forget about me and focus on passing the re-sit. One-hundred percent focus.” She raised her hand in a tight wave.
Forget about her? “I could never forget about you, babe.”
He waved. Boog’s entire problem: He couldn’t forget Rosy for even thirty seconds.
And if she was back with Ruben, the cuddlemeister would throw himself under a lorry.
Findlay checked the mirrors. No Rosy, yet. He unfastened her backpack and immediately struck the mother lode. Bras and panties. He pushed his nose in, breathed, and felt his crotch twitch.
The passenger door opened.
“Caught,” Rosy said.
Mum and Dads
Rosy watched Findlay’s face redden.
He gestured at her open Karrimor. “I was only—”
She laughed. “What are you like?” She pulled the backpack off him. “No presents in there.” He was worse than a child. She opened the rear door and flung her gear onto the seat. “It’s just a little something this time,” she said, as she rejoined him in the front, “and I didn’t have time to wrap it.”
Rosy worked her hand down into her jeans pocket to retrieve the key ring she’d bought on a whim. She presented it to him.
He squinted at the message. “I heart my dad,” he said.
“Love. I love my stepdad.” The only man left she could actually trust. She squeezed his knee.
He put his hand on hers. “You’re a lovely girl, Rosy.”
“I know,” she said, and smirked. “Home?”
“Your mum needs screws,” Findlay said. “We’ll have to drop by B&Q.”
Rosy sighed. “More DIY? The woman’s an addict. Well actually, there’s a builders merchant right next door. Shall we try there first?”
“Okay,” he said, then squeezed and patted her hand. “Okay, Rosy.”
Findlay showing affection. Clearly, he liked that key ring.
The builders merchant really was right next to the flats: Jewson, a whitewashed brick building with blue painted warehouse doors. Findlay headed under the raised shutters of the entrance into a shop section, hands still trembling. That had been too close. Almost caught sniffing his stepdaughter’s undies.
Findlay’s nostrils filled with the smell of wood. This was the right place for timber but not a lot of ironmongery on show. Shit. He couldn’t be arsed with B&Q on a Saturday.
He joined a queue of depressed-looking tradesmen — still working for a living, the suckers — and fumbled in the pocket of his shorts for the note Irene had written.
4 x 40 mm countersunk pozi (x 20)
How the fuck did she expect him to work out what that meant?
Findlay was still scowling at the paper when he heard a voice he hadn’t heard in over a dozen years. A voice that turned his intestines into a roiling liquid. A voice that cut off at the exact second Findlay’s gaze snapped across toward the timber and locked eyes with—
Oh, Jesus, no.
And the monster’s glare was already turning black with malevolence. “Findlay Dickson,” he boomed, then pointed. “You. Piece. Of. Shit.”
The big bastard strode toward him, snatched an eight-by-four-feet sheet of hardboard from a wide-eyed salesman, and kept on coming.
Findlay had a sudden and clear premonition of being buried in a hardboard coffin. Then he ran.
Rosy looked up, confused by a skittering sound coming her way. Findlay, almost at the car, dodged aside and a large sheet of hardboard twirled past at ground level, skimming away across the tarmac. Just before the boundary wall, the board tried to take off but didn’t clear the top, hit the stone, bounced back and collapsed with a final judder and scrape.
While Rosy leaned forward to try to see the board thrower, the driver’s door screeched open and Findlay flung himself in.
He started the car, jerked away and bombed straight out into Slateford Road without looking.
Rosy covered her head at the roaring rasp of tyres and a horn blast behind, bracing for an impact that didn’t happen.
Findlay floored it.
“Dad?” Rosy looked back but Jewson flicked out of view behind the flats. “What’s going on?”
“Frank,” he said, and his voice climbed an octave. “That psycho was in there.”
Her biological dad? Rosy had just missed seeing Frank-the-Raper? God damn it. She twisted backwards and stared out the rear window.
“We lost him, Sweetpea. We’re safe,” Findlay said. “But screw Irene’s DIY. We’re going home.”
Rosy faced forward and slumped back in her seat.
And screw Frank Friendship too.
How ugly was Frank if Rosy’s mum had found Findlay more attractive? Rosy moved her Tesco value orange juice — made from concentrate, yum — just to reassure herself that Findlay’s eyes were focused on infinitely distant orange, not her cleavage. The eyes moved. Phew. Paranoia.
“Rosy?” her mum said. “Are you listening?”
“Sorry, no.” Jeez. Home for two hours and miserable already.
Mum shook her head. “Do you have a start date with N-BioCom? If it’s not for a month or so, maybe you’d still think about the biscuit factory?”
“Any day now,” Rosy said. “I have to be ready at a moment’s notice. No way I can commit to anything at Reward Biscuits, sorry.”
Moving back home had not been part of Rosy’s plans for this, the most important summer of her life. But after Boog’s tattoo revelation last night, what choice had she?
“They should have given you a date by now, surely?” Mum said. “Call them. Don’t delay. There’s a good wage at Reward. God knows, I could do with some digs money from you.”
Digs money for what? The grocery shop couldn’t be a stretch: one tin of non-Heinz beans between three adults? One slice of white toast each? “If money’s so tight, why not get your life partner here a job at Reward?”
That snapped her stepdad from his orange-induced — or maybe Frank-induced — trance. “Me?” Findlay said.
“Findlay? At Reward?” Mum said. “What do you want to do, kill him? Anyway, They’re only interested in you, because they were so impressed with you last year. It’s a golden opportunity, Rosy.”
Said as if she really believed it. Jeez.
“They’re not taking on any other students,” Mum said.
“You’d better not have told them I’ll start, Mum. I have big plans for the summer, none of which involves an endless conveyor of custard creams.”
“That new boyfriend of yours,” Findlay said, “must have polished off an endless conveyor of custard creams.”
Rosy’s mouth fell open and heat rushed to her face.
“You should have seen him, Irene,” Findlay said. “Honest to God, I was so shocked. What do you see in somebody like that, Rosy? Are you poking fun at him? Surely you can’t be attracted?”
Rosy held her hands up. “Boog is a nice person.” Attractive too, damn it. Boog was lovely. For a stalker. She’d already had a text from him: My head is full of aldehydes, ketones and you. Call me. B x
“Leave her alone, Findlay,” Mum said.
The last thing Rosy had expected from her mum was support. Mum was looking at her as though maybe even reassessing her.
But Findlay had his fangs in. “Look at her,” he said. “Is this a girl who has to settle for fat?”
“Enough,” Mum said. “It’s none of your concern.”
“It is my concern,” Findlay said. “I don’t want Rosy falling into his kind of habits, and getting type-two diabetes, losing fingers and toes. Or dying.”
“His kind of habits?” Rosy said. “Like having a proper lunch, you mean, instead of a war ration?” She clattered her cutlery against the plate. “Least he doesn’t smoke. And he’s just chubby, okay? Plus he’s only a boyfriend. It’s not like I’m shackled to him, like some dopey teen drop-out carrying his sprog.”
Mum pushed her chair back and stood. Rosy made a grab to squeeze her arm, to apologise, but Mum jerked away.
Her stepdad glared at Rosy, a see-what-you’ve-done glare.
“There’s a bag of chocolate digestives to take to Franny,” Mum said. “I expect you to do that, Rosy.”
Rosy slumped. Franny. Frank-the-Raper’s mum. What a great start to the summer.
“And Snuggy needs a walk.”
“Now, hold it right there,” Rosy said. “If I’m paying for digs, I’m not picking up all the odd jobs. I’ll walk Snuggy. You take the biscuits to Franny. They’re your biscuits.”
“Fine. Why not?” Mum said. “I do everything else.”
Findlay gave Rosy the evil eye.
So much for the I-love-my-dad key ring. “And you can give me one of those looks, Findlay,” Rosy said, “the day you actually do something, besides lounging in front of the TV, using cushions as fart mufflers. As if nobody notices.”
Findlay’s gaze dropped back to Rosy’s orange juice and Rosy’s own eyes drifted off to infinity.
Boog knew where she was now — he’d sent a card here once. Too many details. She’d shared far too much, far too soon. All for a cuddle.
But after Ruben, she’d so needed a cuddle.
Rosy is officially still with Ruben, so when the chubby fellow-chemistry-student she’s had her eye on looks across at her, she turns away to hide her flustered smile. She lifts two plastic cups of the orange juice Heriot-Watt Student Union has laid on for Freshers’ Week and hands one cup to Jen.
But Jen isn’t interested in the orange juice. “Uh-oh,” her friend says. “Fat guy. Incoming. Two o’clock. Let’s move it, babes.”
Jen takes Rosy’s hand and walks around to the comfy chairs.
“OMG,” Jen says. “He’s a heat-seeker.”
Rosy frowns, turns and the chubby guy is right beside her.
Broad teeth shine in that wide smile of his. He’s taller than Rosy — yay — but stretched to wide-screen format. Close up, his boxy nose is even cuter. “You’re Rosy, right?” he says, and puts out a big hand. “I’m Boog.”
His hand is a glove around Rosy’s, soft and warm.
When Boog has gone, Jen laughs at him. “Oh, my God. As if. Imagine how you’d even have sex with that.”
Rosy isn’t imagining sex. She’s imagining wrapping her arms around him and snuggling into him on the couch. Boog. He’s lovely. Just lovely.
Up in her bedroom, Rosy unpacked on auto-pilot, her mind on Boog and Findlay, but also Frank Friendship. To have come so close to seeing him.
She shook her head. Worthless jerk.
Rosy wandered back downstairs, arms around her dirty laundry.
For Rosy, home had always been this place, an ex-council house her mum had somehow managed to buy on biscuit factory wages. Findlay hadn’t worked in eight years and even before that his jobs were patchy. But eight years ago, he stopped describing himself as a bricklayer and became an entertainer. Findlay had been the one who waved goodbye to Rosy in the morning, and Findlay the one there for her at home time. Mum did everything else — including keeping the house in a permanent state of renovation.
Since her last visit home, the banister had been sanded and revarnished and the hall had acquired a swirly carpet and Jack Vettriano prints. Still, finding Mum was always easy: just follow the smell of emulsion. And there she was, in the kitchen wearing old biscuit factory overalls, a paint roller in her hands.
“Is this colour too dark?” Mum said.
Rosy shoved her clothes in the laundry basket, then contemplated the orange stripe on the wall.
“No. It’s warm and rich.”
Her mum widened the stripe with the roller.
“I almost saw Frank today.” Last time Rosy almost saw him, she’d have been about four.
Mum stopped and looked at her properly for the first time. “Findlay said Frank tried to take his head off with a sheet of wood.”
“More his feet. And hardboard, not wood. But yes.”
Mum shook her head. She rolled the remaining paint on the wall, then dunked the roller in the paint tray and rocked it back and forth on the dimples until the fibres were evenly matted. Rosy suspected her mother was hooked on the smell of paint.
“Why did you ever marry Frank?” Rosy said.
Mum shot her a vinegar look. At Rosy’s age, her mum had been married to Frank for two years but had already left him to live with Findlay.
“I mean, you married him,” Rosy said, “but then just shacked up with Findlay. If it was okay to just shack up with somebody, why marry Frank?”
“Shack up?” Mum thumped the roller onto the wall and rumbled it back and forth, wet and sucking. “You have no idea what I’d been through.”
“But Frank put you through it. So why marry him?”
Mum flapped her hand, and looked away. “It was the thing to do.” She stood back and looked at the wall. “This is too dark.”
“Why didn’t you ever divorce him?”
“Rosy, what is this?” Her mum held the roller. They both heard paint drip onto the newspaper, and Mum dropped her hand closer to the tray. “I didn’t divorce Frank because I didn’t want to upset him.”
Didn’t want to upset a rapist? Jeez. This was frightening. Mum’s head really was a logic-free zone. But maybe Rosy’s was too. Because that hardboard spinning across Jewson’s car park had rekindled her desire to know what the psycho looked like.
“This colour is far too dark,” Mum said. “Twenty quid down the fucking drain.”
Rosy’s eyes widened. She hadn’t heard Mum use the F-word before. It sounded clumsy in her mouth. “You can add a little white. You did that last time you redecorated my bedroom.”
Rosy looked down at the paint tray. “Franny calls Frank a rapist,” she said.
“Franny shouldn’t be sharing details like that.”
The dog whined.
“And weren’t you going to walk Snuggy?” Mum said.
Rosy dropped her gaze from a kite caught in the high boughs of a beech in time to see Snuggy squirt out a puddle of diarrhoea.
She scanned the parkland behind the houses, relieved there were no witnesses to film her humiliation. “You did that deliberately,” she said.
Wasn’t walking a Dachshund-terrier cross embarrassing enough? Rosy had wanted a dog she could cuddle, like an Old English sheepdog. Findlay had come home with this. Snuggy.
The Foo Fighters erupted from Rosy’s cardigan and she pulled the phone out, snarled in a Tesco carrier bag. “Hey, Jen.”
“Guess what arrived this morning, like an hour after you left?” Jen said. “Only a big fat N-BioCom envelope.”
Rosy squealed back at Jen and stamped her feet on the grass in a rapid tattoo. “Yes, yes, yes! But how do I get my letter without negotiating Boog again?”
“You see?” Jen said. “This is what happens.”
“Open it,” Rosy said.
“Me? Open your special letter? Are you sure?”
“I’m sure, Jen. Open it.”
Rosy’s stomach turned a full cycle and her hands became slick. This was it. Her summer placement. The official start of her high-flying career. And she’d made it at eighteen. In your face, Mr Owen — saying she’d crash and burn if she went to uni straight from fifth year.
Now, she just had to pick the right moment to tell her folks that N-BioCom was based in Oslo. Boog didn’t need to know.
Jen’s muttering had stopped.
“Jen? You still there? What are they offering?”
“Oh, Rosy. Oh, babes.”
“What? Is it only a pittance?”
Jen made a mewling noise. “There is no offer.”
Rosy’s brow furrowed so much, she had to close one eye.
She touched her eyelid and stared at Snuggy’s lead. “Sorry, Jen, but are you sure? The CEO interviewed me himself. Jen? The letter… it’s a fat letter.”
“Leaflets,” her friend said. “It isn’t you, babes, it isn’t personal. They say it’s across the board. No placements approved this year. It’s the current economic climate.”
“They’re re-evaluating their requirements. If the situation changes, they’ll bear you in mind.”
Snuggy — his eyes locked on Rosy’s — hunkered down and dribbled out another shit pool.
Rosy hardly heard Jen. Biscuits. A summer of biscuits. Jam sandwiches, not gene sequencing. Overalls, not a lab coat.
Jen was talking. “Let’s get smashed. Let’s go out tonight and get hammered. Me and Crawford, you and Boog. How does that sound?”
Rosy’s chin stiffened. “Perfect,” she said. “Only let’s not invite Boog.”
Jen sighed. “The guy hid your name in his tattoo.”
“Like that’s in any way normal?”
“Take it as a compliment. Then either dump him or go back to being friends — ideally both.”
Screw that. Rosy already had enough shit to deal with.
Third morning of Freshers’ Week and Rosy, sitting on the damp lawn outside the student union, watches Boog hover in the crowds, his hand on his stubbly chin. She raises her arm as though answering a question in class, then waves it. Boog thumbs his stubble, looking intellectual, then he makes an act of only just noticing she’s sitting there. That’s so endearing.
“Pull up a pew,” Rosy says, and makes space — not too much, so that when he settles himself down on the grass and hauls his heavy-duty legs in, he’s close by.
And once Boog gets over himself, he’s easy to talk to. Rosy finds out his dad died a couple of years back. That’s when she squeezes his hand and moves in to brush against him.
“My biological dad might as well be dead,” Rosy says. “I have no memory of him.”
He stares at her. “I can’t imagine that. Don’t you want to meet him?”
Rosy shakes her head. “My stepdad is my real dad. My biological dad is not a nice person,” she says. “Bad blood on the Friendship side of the family, I’m afraid. I might go psycho and try to kill you.” She plunges a fist to his belly.
Boog gasps and flinches, then plays along, lolls his head back and sticks his tongue out one side of his mouth, making a strangulated noise in his throat. And now Rosy’s hand is at his belly anyway, she flattens it out. She rubs — not long, just long enough to let him know she likes him — then takes her hand away.
His eyes are wide and she can see his mind whir behind them.
“Seriously, though,” Rosy says. “My granddad was a murderer. Search for Gus Friendship, then decide if you want to speak to me again.”
“I’ve already decided,” Boog says, his grey gaze so sincere.
Boog is nothing but a lovely big teddy bear and Rosy’s goal by the end of the week is to win a cuddle.
A fist battered on the bathroom door. “Are you wanking again?” Crawford shouted.
Asshole. “I’m taking a dump. Want to check?” Boog shouted back, and resumed flogging his meat, but with greater urgency.
“I can hear you, slapping away in there,” Crawford said. Another thump on the door. “C’mon, hurry it up, Moby Dick… I have to shave.”
No good. The image of Rosy’s white lace bra fled and all Boog could picture was Crawford’s raggedy chin. He posted the toilet paper, flushed, crammed himself into his M&S trunks and zipped his jeans over his exhausted boner.
Evicted, Boog cuffed Crawford’s ear. Crawford shoved him, but only managed to propel his own skinny ass backward into the doorframe.
“Some of us are going out tonight, and some of us are fat,” Crawford said. “Which are you, Boog?”
“Tick-tock, drop-out,” Crawford said.
Thank God Crawford would be gone from the flat in five weeks. Only Janek to distract Boog from his fightback.
Janek — wearing nothing but Y-fronts and size twelve K-Swiss trainers, yet never bare, poor bastard, with that pelt of ginger body hair — sank deeper into the sofa, headphones on, blowing up shit on the Xbox. Another doubled-over slice of toast and Nutella disappeared through the curtain of his hair. Those headphones were for Boog’s benefit — a sweet gesture — but they did nothing for the clack and rattle of the controller and the crazy-ass flashing of the TV.
In all things, Janek had been Boog’s benchmark. Boog didn’t drink as much as Janek. He wasn’t as fat as Janek. He worked harder than Janek. So maybe Janek was to blame. Janek had spent the bulk of two semesters in bars, in bed or in combat, blasting civilisations to vapour. Boog had relaxed. They’d shared no classes, so how was Boog to know Janek was basically just a giant brain embedded in a protective package of fat and fur?
Janek grinned at him. “Level eight, Boogieman.”
No. Janek was blameless. There was only one person to pin this on: Rosy.
Boog made the sign for coffee.
“Yo.” Janek strafed a truck. Boog flinched at the explosion and Janek guffawed. “Pussy.”
The kitchen could be a scene from Janek’s game. Dishes overflowed the sink, clambered up onto the worktop. A frying pan complete with sausage stuck in white fat lay on the hob. Cornflakes crunched underfoot. And the whole place stank of fish and chips. Per usual, Janek had left the knife standing in the Nutella jar. He’d also nicked three slices of Boog’s past-its-sell-by ASDA wholemeal loaf, without bothering to seal the bag and shove it back in the freezer. Crawford, meanwhile, had draped his own jeans over a chair, but Boog’s jeans were still a sodden tangle in the Zanussi, and somehow the jeans annoyed Boog more than Janek’s after-dinner snack chaos.
No clean mugs, but Boog foolishly multitasked by boiling the kettle and washing a couple of mugs at the same time, thereby losing a precious few minutes of guilt-free procrastination.
And when Boog came back, his unpaid, full-time summer job sat waiting for him in the armchair: Chemistry, by Blackman et al. Twelve hundred pages of stuff he should have been studying all year, instead of Rosy Friendship.
He set his hairy flatmate’s coffee down, then retreated from that Janek miasma of Right Guard losing the battle against body odour.
“Thanks, Boogie,” Janek said. “You’re a prize.”
“No wuckas,” Boog said. No wuckas at all.
Boog settled ass into armchair, and opened the tome at his bookmark, a Foster’s beermat rescued from his first date with Rosy. She’d written the drinks order on the back and thus turned the disc into a holy relic.
Chapter 21, Aldehydes and Ketones. But one look at a page full of erect little carbonyls and Boog’s mind sprang back to Rosy.
Crawford began one of his Eminem raps, where he d-dah-dahed through the hard bits.
Boog closed his eyes. He was so screwed.
“Forgot to tell ya,” Crawford shouted, then opened the bathroom door and leaned over the chair to leer in Boog’s face. “Rosy’s coming out to play tonight.”
Boog pushed him away. “Bullshit.”
“Why else would Jen tell me to keep your fat ass in the dark?” Crawford said, and deodorised an armpit.
A knot gathered in Boog’s forehead. Why would Rosy go out? Rosy wanted to turn down the volume.
“Don’t worry, Fats,” Crawford said. “I’ll let you know if your woman strays.” He grinned and shrugged into his G-Star shirt. “Of course, not if she strays my way, and she’s certainly given me signals.”
Boog raised his eyebrows. “Signals like Stop and No Entry?”
“Signals like she’d love to lose a whole lot of weight, fast,” Crawford said. “Dead weight.”
Boog bit his lip, shook his head then got up and followed Crawford to the front door. “Bullshit.”
“You mean she hasn’t sent you the same signals, fat boy? Maybe you need to pay more attention.”
Crawford waved to Janek, then to Boog. “G’night ladies. Enjoy Xbox, or whatever it is you ineligible guys do to simulate having a life.”
“Xbox is reality,” Janek said. “You’re the simulation, Crawfish.”
The flat door banged.
Seventeen points out of fifty in the critical semester two exams. Seventeen points. Thirty-four percent. What was that? An E, for fuck’s sake? A-passes his entire life, and now an E? Boog’s dad would have taken him apart, atom by atom.
Boog deployed his inhaler.
But wasn’t Rosy worth the sacrifice?
Why would Rosy go out without the cuddlemeister?
“We could grab a beer?” Janek said, scratching his balls.
Boog could do with a beer. “I should study.”
“We could tail Crawfish,” Janek said. “Find out where they’re going. Then we could grab a beer.”
Boog gritted his teeth. He had to knuckle down and study.
But he had to be sure Rosy wasn’t back with Ruben. “Janek? Go excavate your clothes.”
Boog and Janek waited on a yellow line, and watched the entrance to the Brass Monkey — a favourite of Jen’s — through the windscreen. Tailing Crawford had been a scary gig but as soon as the destination became obvious, he’d been able to hang back. Crawford and Jen hadn’t picked Rosy up. Maybe Rosy wasn’t coming. Maybe Crawford had only been winding Boog up again.
“Looky-looky. Eleven o’clock,” Janek said.
Rosy. Boog’s heart gave that plaintive little tug. He wanted her so bad right now. So bad.
“You’re a lucky guy,” Janek said.
Boog frowned. “Why isn’t she going inside?” He realised why as soon as he said it. “Shit, she’s looking for the car. Get down, Janek.” He tried to duck down himself.
“Down? Down where?” Janek whimpered, his legs already wedged under the dash.
“Too late. We’ve been rumbled.”
Boog took out his phone, and became intensely interested in it.
Rosy rapped the driver’s window.
Boog looked up, astonished to see her. The window hummed down. Her scent wafted in — Clinique Happy — and she bent over, giving him the sweetest of views if he but dare look.
“Rosy?” Boog said. “What are you doing here?”
Rosy folded her arms. “Jen sent me a text to say you followed them.”
Boog hoisted a thumb at his passenger. “Janek’s stalking Jen, aren’t you Janek?”
“Yeah, I have a problem,” Janek said, and parted the drape of his hair, treating Boog to the tang of oniony armpit. “Stalking is tough with no wheels.”
“Not funny, Boog,” Rosy said, and she had that adorable little crinkle between her eyebrows.
“My fault,” Janek said. “Boog’s been studying his ass off all day. He just wanted a beer, honest. I spotted Crawford and thought it’d amuse to give chase.”
Boog nodded, desperate, and patted Janek’s back in lieu of a full-on chest bump and bear hug. “Truth. That’s exactly what happened, babe.”
“I don’t know what’s going on in your head, Boog,” Rosy said, “but you’d better listen up because I’m not going to say this again.” Her eyes were hard. “I have ambitions in life. I will not be carrying some worthless drop-out and making excuses for him.”
“If you pass your exams, maybe we’ll talk. But until then, stay away from me. I don’t want to see you.” She backed away, arms folded. “Sort your shit out, Boog. You have all summer.” She scowled and shooed him with her hand. “Now, would you just get lost?”
A total ban on the cuddlemeister. Licence to hug revoked.
Boog watched Rosy cross the road, desperate for every photon that reached his eyes, then she was gone, lost inside.
Janek leaned his head back in the seat and gave a big sigh. “I need to find me a woman to treat me that mean.”
Boog had the woman. If he didn’t pass his exams, she’d never treat him mean again. “Janek? You might just have witnessed the beginning of the end for me.”
All week long, Ben has been using his nickname from primary school — Boog — to introduce himself, establishing a new, cool persona to go with his new, cool haircut and his new, cool clothes. And his reinvention has worked, because all week long, an impossibly beautiful girl — the girl every guy keeps asking about — has been smiling at him, chatting to dull old Ben. But it’s when he and Janek are in the queue, waiting to board the Get-to-Know Edinburgh bus tour, the last Saturday of Heriot-Watt’s scheduled Freshers’ events, when Boog gets-to-know he’s fallen in love with Rosy Friendship.
It starts with a tap on his shoulder. He turns and she’s two feet away. To Boog, she’s the living definition of the word radiance. Rosy has an aura. From the tumble of her hair to her tight boots, a light separates her from everybody else. She’s like a Marvel character whose disguise can’t hide the superhuman within. A stray eyelash rests on her cheek, and that’s the only way he can tell she’s even mortal.
“Hey Boog. Need a partner?”
“Actually,” he says, like the virgin he is, “this is my pal Janek.”
Janek shakes Rosy’s hand, then says, “Won’t be room on one seat for the two of us, Boogie. You two should sit together.”
Janek insists and Boog’s new friend has saved his love life.
On the bus, Boog offers the window seat to Rosy.
Rosy shakes her head, a smile on lips perfect as petals, a smile that lights the gold dust halo in those infinite eyes. “You sit at the window,” she says. “That way I’ll always have a lovely view.”
And Boog is hers. Boog is hers forever.
(Sunday, 29 May)
Rosy lifted her face from the pillow, aware that somebody was in her room. For a moment she thought the intruder was Boog until she spied the discoloured toenails and realised it was only Findlay, thank God.
Her woollen tongue managed an approximation of, “Dad?”
“It’s almost nine in the morning, Sweetpea.”
Almost nine? On Sunday morning? “Thanks.” She waved him away. “Getting up. Go.”
Somebody had driven nails through the back of her head at angles, then bent them over behind the headboard, pinned her onto the bed. God.
“Your mum’s on early shift so she’s gone to work. But she told me the bad news,” Findlay’s voice said, “about the placement.”
The placement, gone. Reward Biscuits. Starting next Monday. Mum couldn’t have been more delighted.
Rosy moved her head and the pain reminded her about the bottle-and-a-half of Pinot Noir last night. Eighteen was too young to drink. Somebody should change the law.
“Irene doesn’t get the importance. But I do,” Findlay said. “It’s more than a job. It’s your dream. We both have dreams, you and me, Sweetpea.”
She managed to bring his face into view. “Dad? Not now. Please.”
“Of course,” he said. “But if you want me to phone N-BioCom, see if I can change their minds…?”
Yeah, like maybe he could drop into Norwegian and chew the fat about gene splicing.
“I’d do anything for you, Sweetpea,” Findlay said. “Anything. Even if you just need a hug. Sometimes we need that, don’t we? A great big hug, like when you were little. If you needed that.”
He touched her hand.
Rosy gripped his finger, patted it. “I don’t. But thanks.”
He smoothed her shoulder through the bedclothes. “Think about it.”
“I will,” Rosy said.
Or she could go sniff an ashtray.
Not so long ago, she’d longed for a hug from her stepdad. Or from her mum. But now he’d only gone and given her a pang for a cuddle with the old Boog.
Thanks a lot, Dad.
Findlay stood with his back to Rosy’s bedroom door, and his bald patch pressed against the wood. Beneath his bathrobe, his own wood pressed against his underpants.
He’d watched for twenty minutes before she’d noticed him. And the scene had been so hot. Just watching her lie on her front like that, the top of her breast lifting and falling, the curve of her buttocks—
Oh, Jesus, what was he doing?
Findlay shook his head and retreated to his and Irene’s room to dress.
Rosy must have dozed because Boog had taken his shirt off to show her he had indeed sucked off his nipples with the Dyson. But Rosy’s thinking brain woke her with a startlingly clear thought:
Screw their CEO, the lying sack of Scandinavian seal shit.
And screw Reward Biscuits.
Rosy had other options. She could take a trip out to the campus tomorrow, visit her director of studies, and enlist his help to find a placement. Maybe with an English pharma company.
She sat up—
— and became a child again.
On the wall, Rosy’s old favourite, a poster from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast tacked and re-tacked a half-dozen times, the colours garish now. Her Bratz doll, Cloe, in need of a good wash, dirty tramp. And the treasure of Christmas five years back — her dusty Technika portable TV and DVD player — just a cheap piece of crap. Kid’s junk.
Rosy turned on her TV, opened up her Beauty and the Beast DVD, shoved the disk in the tray, then collapsed back in her tiny bed with her arms around Toff, her fat teddy. She clipped the DVD case closed and stroked the Beast on the cover. The beautiful Beast.
Rosy thought of Boog and how he’d followed Crawford and Jen last night. Crawford said Boog had driven like a madman.
It wasn’t fair. First Ruben, now Boog. And she’d been so fond of Boog. She was all through with guys.
She watched her movie and when Belle sang about the baker, Rosy thought about those chocolate digestives just waiting for somebody to take them to Franny.
Not a pleasant prospect, admittedly, but Franny had to have a picture of Frank-the-Raper somewhere, surely?
Somewhere biscuit-related, perhaps?
Rosy had to know what Frank looked like. She had to. And at Franny’s, the answer might be within her grasp.
Rosy’s mummy hands Franny a clear plastic bag full of reject biscuits, then Rosy holds her cheek out for Franny’s wet kiss. Rosy wipes the slime from her face and Franny cackles, then shows them both into the lounge.
There on Franny’s coffee table is a biscuit tin with a Christmas picture on the lid. Proper shop-bought biscuits, not factory rejects.
“Please, may I have a biscuit?” Rosy says.
“Oh, there are no biscuits in that my darling,” Franny says, and pulls the tin from Rosy’s prying fingers. Franny holds open the bag of crumb-speckled chocolate digestives. “Help yourself, my wee hen.”
Rosy settles for a reject.
Franny puts the Christmas tin up high, way up high, way out of reach.
There’s something very special in that biscuit tin.
Rosy’s mum once described Granny Friendship as so awful she was too scared to dislike the woman. Rosy had a certain fondness for the old girl. Even so, she felt her heart rate increase as she stepped onto the path between a garden of lawn and flowerbeds on the right, and its evil twin, ragged and ruined, on the left — Franny’s garden.
Even the woman’s pet name originated from fear, when a four-year-old Rosy had stumbled over Thank you, Granny Friendship. Granny Friendship had laughed until tears came, then jabbed Rosy in the chest. “That’s my name, now. Franny. I’m your Franny.” Funny to look back on. Scary at the time.
The doorbell ding-donged. Rosy waited, the swag bag of biscuits behind her back.
Franny’s letterbox rattled up so abruptly, Rosy teetered on the step.
“Bugger off,” Franny said. “We’re not interested.”
“Rosy.” The door clattered then swung wide. Franny stood there in a summer dress much too young for her, a pencil behind her ear, a cigarette stuck to her bottom lip. “Rosy. My Lord. You’ve blossomed. Come in, come in. You should have phoned.” She scrunched her hair. “I’m a mess and I don’t have anything to offer you.”
The woman waved Rosy inside, through the hall and into the lounge, where a shiny road bike rested against the settee. The name on the bike read Specialized. An apt description. Expensive. Franny pointed with her cigarette. “Chained to my back fence for a month. That makes it mine. You need a bike?”
Rosy smiled, shook her head then remembered the biscuits. She lifted the plastic bag. “Chocolate digestives.”
Franny gave out a rattling laugh. “Good girl.” She waved Rosy into a chair draped with washing. The woman shifted the bike forward and let herself fall back into the sofa, the biscuit bag clutched against her stomach.
The old woman opened the bag, grabbed a biscuit, broke it in her hand and pushed half in her mouth. She spoke over the biscuit. “Love these. Been ages.” She chewed for a while, closed her eyes in pleasure.
Rosy wiped slick hands on her jeans, and smiled.
Franny gestured to the sideboard, a teak monstrosity packed with plates that wobbled whenever anybody walked past. “Thanks for the beautiful birthday card,” she said.
The cat on the card had made Rosy laugh. Now it looked petrified and desperate to escape. The other card would be from Rosy’s mum.
Rosy waved her hand dismissively at the card. “Bad taste,” she said, “but glad you liked it.”
“Nonsense,” Franny said. “I always love your cards. You have an eye for a lovely picture. Your mother too.”
Lovely picture? The cat had been photo-edited to goggle in a cross-eyed stare at its pink tongue snagged in a mousetrap. Still. As long as Franny liked it.
The second half of the biscuit followed the first, but into the side of Franny’s mouth, like a wad of chewing tobacco. “His go straight in the trash.”
“Frank’s?” Rosy said, and sat forward. “He sends you cards?”
Franny raised her brow and nodded. “But broken hearts can’t be patched with birthday cards.” She chewed, knocked crumbs off her dress, picked up the newspaper, held it at arm’s length. “Mr Geppetto or Island Song?”
Rosy shrugged, smiled. “Island Song.”
“Good girl. That’s a winner.” Franny took the pencil from behind her ear then circled the paper before tossing it aside. “Time I had a win.” Franny’s amber eyes met Rosy’s and, as usual, Rosy couldn’t look into them.
“Findlay crossed paths with Frank at the builders merchant. Is Frank in the building trade now?”
Franny cackled. “Frank? Building something? He’s useless. He can’t even bang in a nail.” She shook her head. “No, hen. He’d have been up to no good.”
Like throwing hardboard.
“He still works for her. Phyllis Long.” Franny spoke the name as though it scalded her mouth. “The devil has marked his own.” That was a reference to Mrs Long’s disfigurement. “She’ll burn in hellfire.” Franny sat forward. “You want to hear something awful, Rosy?”
Rosy nodded, leaned in close enough to smell the cigarettes on Franny’s breath.
“I didn’t offer you a tea and one of your own biscuits,” Franny said, and rubbed Rosy’s cheek.
The woman stood.
Rosy edged forward in the chair but didn’t stand. Deliberately didn’t stand. “I’ll help,” she said.
“Nonsense,” Franny said. “You’re the guest. Sit. Sit. Relax.”
Rosy waited as long as she dared then sat forward and let her eye rove Franny’s lounge, up and down the shelves, looking for something, not even sure she could bring herself to act if she saw it again, already convinced this was her worst ever idea.
Franny, a wizard with the scissors, had dealt with all her son’s pictures. The only one left intact was of a dark-haired, smiling three-year-old Frank in an oval mount on the sideboard. But maybe there were some other relics of Frank in…
That old biscuit tin.
And there it was. Red and gold. That old Christmas biscuit tin. Always in here somewhere. The tin sat on a coffee table now, half-concealed beneath a splayed library book. Rosy pursed her lips, rose to her feet, stepped over an ashtray and hunkered down.
The walls in this place were thin, as though maybe there were nothing behind the wood-chip wallpaper but cardboard. From the kitchen came the sounds of a basin filling. Never a clean cup. Same system as Boog: Just-in-time dish washing.
Rosy glanced at the kitchen door, then slid the tin from beneath the novel, couldn’t help smirking at the dopey book jacket. Rogue-hearted Son. A redheaded heroine swooned against a bare-chested hero, helpless.
“Is a mug okay?”
Franny’s voice made Rosy jump. “Perfect,” she shouted back, picked up the library book, sat back up in the chair and waited. But the kitchen door remained closed.
Rosy swallowed, then moved in on the tin again. A cheesy Christmas scene decorated the lid: a golden-haired girl hoisted by an unseen adult to place the angel atop the tree. Yuck. Pass the yuletide sick-bag. Rosy shook the tin gently once, heard a muffled knock. Maybe pictures? Maybe the faces of Frank, cut from all the photos?
The kitchen taps shut off. Rosy waited. Heard a hand agitate soapy water. The bump and clack of submerging crockery.
Her own hands slick, Rosy popped the lid off the tin.
An odd smell wafted out. Musky. Not unpleasant. Inside, folds of white knitted wool. A doll’s blanket or shawl. She lifted one side away, then the other. And her breath halted.
Oh. My. God.
The doorbell d-donged, and Rosy jolted.
“Who in the name of Christ—?” Franny said.
“I’ll get it, Franny,” Rosy shouted. Her hands shook so much she could barely shut the lid. “I’ll get it.” She plopped the romance novel back in place, dodged the table and ran for the door. If she could have, she’d have kept running.
In the half-second it took Rosy to wonder if the cyclist — balding and in grey Lycra — might be Frank, she remembered the bike in Franny’s lounge. “Hi,” Rosy managed, her mouth dry, pulse throbbing in her ears, heart still in full flight mode.
“Hi,” the cyclist said. “Sorry to disturb you.” He smiled. “I wonder—”
“Bugger off. Not interested, whatever it is,” Franny said, and took charge of the door. “Sling your hook.”
“Wait,” he said. “Please. I’m looking for my bike. I chained it to the fence out there last night—”
“Oh you did, did you?” Franny said. “Let me guess, somebody nicked it? Well, good. Teach you a lesson. That’s a private fence, and that’s a private road for residents, not a bloody park-and-cycle.”
“Listen, I’m sorry,” he said. “You didn’t happen to notice anybody else with a black bike. It has the word Specialized on the down-tube—”
“No.” Franny cut in before Rosy could open her mouth. “Now, bugger off before I get the police to you.” She slammed the door so hard Rosy flinched.
Rosy gaped. “Franny, that’s his bike. You’ll have to give it back.”
“Oh, no I won’t,” Franny said. “This is the only way they learn.”
Rosy turned back, but Franny’s hand clamped her wrist. “Do you want to get me in trouble?”
“Have you done this before?” Rosy said.
“No,” Franny said, then shrugged, let Rosy go. “Once or twice.”
Rosy covered her mouth, then — shaken and appalled — followed the bicycle thief into the kitchen.
Franny handed Rosy a mug to dry. Field mice, kissing. The same motif decorated the yellowed roller blind.
“Relax, my darling,” Franny said. “Your pal will claim on his insurance. Some kid will get the bike of his dreams. I’ll have another hundred quid to keep the wolf away. And the fat cat financiers get bloody noses.” She reached up and pinched Rosy’s cheek. “It’s a virtuous circle.”
Rosy stared. Was Rosy now an accessory? “Franny?”
Franny held her hands up. “Okay. Guilty. But I can’t work, and benefit cheques don’t cover my costs. Do you want your poor old Franny to curl up and die?”
Rosy knew better than to ask why a woman fit enough to cut through a chain and lug a bike up four steps couldn’t work. “Don’t you get money from Frank?”
“Frank? Hah. Would you like to see what he gave me for my birthday? My sixtieth birthday?” She dried her hands on Rosy’s dishtowel, then opened a cupboard and lifted down a clear plastic cake container.
A Victoria sponge filled the top layer.
Was that so bad? A card and a cake? “At least he remembered,” Rosy said.
“Oh, he remembered, all right. He’s like an elephant: never forgets and leaves nothing behind but shit.”
Franny lifted the container lid. The icing sugar lay white and untouched.
“You didn’t want to taste it?” Rosy said.
“I didn’t want poisoned,” Franny said. “I should have shown him what I thought of his birthday present.”
Before Rosy could object, Franny flipped open the pedal bin. The sponge broke and flopped in. Franny tipped an ashtray on top, then the lid gonged down on Frank’s cake.
“Anyway.” Franny picked up the tea tray. “I assume you didn’t come here to talk about a rapist.”
Rosy had no desire to sneak another look in Franny’s biscuit tin, so when Franny visited the ladies’, Rosy behaved like a proper guest and just sat leafing through the same old doctored photos in the hope of finding something she’d missed.
Visitors to Franny’s house had to pretend they couldn’t hear every fart and splash from the bathroom, had to keep their own legs crossed until they got home. Judging by the noise, maybe Franny ought to lay off the chocolate digestives.
Rosy’s search through the photos, meanwhile, was unproductive. The only intact image of Frank was a sheet of four duplicates of the big portrait on the sideboard. Four duplicates. A cuddly three-year-old kid and nobody had wanted a picture of him? Nobody?
The toilet flushed, and Franny rejoined her.
“My favourite picture of you is this one,” Franny said. Her dirty fingernail tapped on Rosy looking like Queen Dork in a party frock. “Maybe ’cos I see myself in you, back when I was pretty.”
“Franny?” Rosy held up the four little Franks. “Could I keep one of these?”
Franny looked at her hard for a moment then nodded. “’Course you can, hen,” she said, “But that’s not your daddy.”
Rosy gaped. “It’s not?”
“That’s my wee darling. That’s my wee Frankie before the devil twisted him into a monster.” She poked her finger into another hole where Frank’s face should have been. Her eyes glinted.
The devil marks his own. Twisted into a monster. Frank must be disfigured. That’s why Mum and Findlay never let Rosy see him. Disfigured, like Phyllis Long. And if Rosy wanted to see Frank, maybe Mrs Long could arrange that.
Rosy picked up the photo: Frank in the shed with his dad, Gus Friendship. Still little more than a toddler, head snipped out. “What I don’t understand,” Rosy said, “is why you kept granddad’s face, but cut out Frank’s?”
Franny leaned back to fix Rosy with a stare. “Because, Rosy, all the evil in this family is rooted in Frank.”
Rosy looked down at the missing face.
“Frank drove the wedge between Gus and me,” Franny said. “Frank is the curse. Frank is why Gus isn’t here today, the reason Gus did what he did. Gus was no killer.”
Oh, but Gus was a killer. Rosy’s grandfather’s deeds were all over the internet. Frank could only have been six at the time and no six-year-old kid, no matter how malevolent, made Gus Friendship do what he did.
“I’ll go cut off one of these for you.” Franny waved the photos and stood.
Rosy lifted her mum’s wedding photo. Their only wedding photo. Mum stood smiling, leaning against a ragged hole. Franny had been especially thorough in her excision of Frank in this one, had even snipped into Irene’s image where there’d been overlaps. They’d had to wait until Frank turned sixteen before they could marry, so Rosy had already been born, and wasn’t in the picture. Her mum wore nothing shiny. Rosy had checked for any reflection of Frank. Nothing. Nothing at all. And nothing of Frank in this house, Rosy felt sure now.
Phyllis Long was the route to Frank.
Rosy shuffled to the picture of Mum, pregnant. Clearly still a schoolgirl, her mum was huge with Rosy. Huge.
Franny returned and handed Rosy the picture of Frankie. “Stay away from Frank, hen. He’s not right in the head. Sees things that aren’t there. You have a dad who loves you. His name is Findlay. Stay away from that monster.”
Findlay lifts Rosy off his back, and sets her on her feet on the wooden boards that thread their way through one of the marquees at the Royal Highland Show. The whole tent stinks of poo. Rosy reaches through the pen and lays her hand on the sheep’s flank. The wool is soft but pushes back against her fingers. The sheep walks away.
Rosy’s stepdad takes her hand.
She smells her fingers and rubs them together. “I want a baby sheep for the garden, Daddy,” Rosy says.
“A sheep would eat all Mummy’s flowers,” Findlay says. “Now, a dog…”
“Don’t put ideas into her head, Findlay,” Mummy says.
Rosy is about to ask for a dog when her stepdad stops, turns back the way they’ve come. “Take her outside, Irene,” Findlay says.
“Frank. Dead ahead.”
Mummy grabs Rosy’s hand and together they run along the planks, back towards the daylight. Rosy tries to look behind, tries to see the bad man Frank, but Mummy brings down a hand to block her view.
Once Franny had phoned in her bet and the horse racing started, no earthly force, not even chocolate coated, would separate her from the telly. Rosy left without asking, even obliquely, about the biscuit tin, too afraid her tone would betray her. She waved at the net-covered lounge window — empty, she knew — and started down the path.
The neighbours had emerged — a couple in their eighties or maybe nineties wearing matching green aprons — out to weed their side of the garden, the weeds seeded, no doubt, from Franny’s rampant tangles. Rosy said hello and was opening the gate latch when something cracked hard across her skull.
Another blow fell. Rosy ducked, lifted her hands to protect her head. Tried to turn to see her attacker. Pain bloomed as the wooden pole of a hoe thumped Rosy’s lip. The swing would have cracked teeth if an old hand hadn’t grabbed hold.
“Stop, Isabelle. Stop it.” The old man stepped between his wife and Rosy, twisted and shook the hoe free of her grip. “That’s Rosy,” he said. “That’s Frankie’s daughter. Little Rosy.”
The woman — Isabelle — stared at Rosy, then at nothing. “Frankie’s daughter?” She shook her head. “Poor wee Frankie.”
“It is Rosy, isn’t it?” the man said. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Rosy touched her aching bottom lip, where a lump was already forming, and inspected the blood on her fingertip.
The man winced. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “She’s getting worse. She’s never hit anybody but me before.” He sighed. “She gets… confused. She’s stronger than me, but her mind…” He shook his head.
“Wee Frankie?” Isabelle said.
Rosy’s photo of Frankie had fallen face up onto the path, and lay at the woman’s feet, ready to be trampled.
“Go,” the old woman said and made a shooing gesture. “Run. And don’t come back.” She broke wind trying to bend over. “Don’t come back. Don’t come back.”
To Rosy’s relief, the old man retrieved the picture.
“Pay no notice,” he said. “She doesn’t even know what she’s saying anymore.” He looked as though he might cry.
“Sorry.” Rosy squeezed his hand, opened the gate and slipped past.
On the bus home, chilling her fat lip with a Wall’s Mini Milk, Rosy played back the image of the thing in the biscuit tin, the thing wrapped in the tiny shawl.
A child. A girl. A mummified human foetus.
From the child’s back bulged a tumour like a second head.
Rosy was born in Franny’s house. And in that photo, Mum’s stomach had been huge.
(Monday, 30 May)
Rosy’s director of studies at Heriot-Watt campus was good enough to see her with no appointment, only to acquaint her with the Latin for eggs — ova — and basket — calathus. He said he’d email her a few contacts, but doubted that at so late a stage she’d be successful in her search for an alternative placement. He advised her to revel in her youth and cherish her vacation.
Rosy had wanted to tell him he’d wasted half a day of her vacation and she’d aged just listening to him, but had instead told him he was wonderful.
She called Jen to check she was remembering to feed Justin, the goldfish, and with the morning squandered, why not make a day of it?
Every birthday, every Christmas since Rosy could remember, there’d been a card with gift tokens or book tokens and a little packet of sweets from Phyllis Long. Rosy had always meant to write, but never got around to it.
The tree on Rosy’s last Christmas card from Mrs Long had been taken from an illustration in a 1930’s limited edition Stories of Hans Christian Andersen, apparently. And above that inscription was the sticker Rosy had been looking for. She dialled the number.
“Good afternoon, Shawford Group,” a female voice said.
“Sorry, I had this as the number for Phyllis Long?”
“That’s right,” the voice said. “I’m Heidi, Phyllis’s PA. Can I help?”
Rosy blinked. Phyllis had a PA? “This is Rosy Friendship—”
“Oh, you’re Frank’s daughter?” the woman said in a rush. “Hold on. I’ll put you straight through to Phyllis’s mobile.”
Rosy waited, and the PA must have introduced her because Phyllis answered, “Hello, dear.”
Phyllis Long clearly had a different idea of discrete than Rosy. After the short ring from her phone that announced Mrs Long’s arrival, Rosy stepped out of the house to see a sparkling, deep blue Aston Martin DB9, its engine murmuring.
Rosy ran to the car before every kid in Northfield Terrace descended. She pulled the door open and got in, careful with her feet so as not to leave any marks. “Hello, Mrs Long.”
Mrs Long turned. “Hello, Rosy.” The words and the eyeless half of Phyllis Long’s face told her the woman was trying to smile. The side with the eye hung slack. “Look at you. You’re so grown up. So beautiful.”
Rosy managed to stop herself from saying the woman looked well. The woman looked as scary as Rosy remembered. That half-paralysed face and permanently closed eye seemed somehow more ghastly with such feminine clothes — the lacy-collared blouse, the poppy print midi skirt. A Halloween mask in diamond and sapphire earrings.
The car pulled away with a throaty rumble, and because Phyllis’s missing eye was this side, Rosy had the disconcerting impression the woman was driving asleep. But from here, she also appeared more human, more normal, the sagging cheek and mouth hidden. Younger too, though she must be in her mid sixties.
Rosy fumbled for something else to say, then realised a little gratitude was long overdue. “Thanks for all the tokens and sweets, Mrs Long.”
“Call me Phyllis. Please. I feel foolish now for sending those,” she said. “You’re too grown up for chocolate Santas.”
“Are you kidding?” Rosy said. “Nobody’s ever too old for chocolate Santas.”
“Your dad doesn’t like them,” she said. “Calls them dog chocolate.”
And by dad, she meant Frank. Frank-the-Raper.
“As I said to you on the phone, Mrs Long — Phyllis — I’d sooner just see his picture than meet the man.”
“Nonsense. Your dad would love to see you.” Phyllis said. “He talks about you all the time.”
“My dad sees me often enough,” Rosy said. “My real dad.” She felt her neck bristle as she said that but it was too late.
“Of course,” Phyllis said. “I meant your natural father. Frank talks about you endlessly.”
Rosy ran her hands through her hair. “We live in the same city, and Frank has never come to see me. I can’t imagine any thought of me ever crosses his mind.”
“Oh,” Phyllis said, “you’d be surprised.”
Anger rose up from nowhere. “Frank raped my mum.”
“Frank was fifteen and drunk — fourteen, actually,” Phyllis said. “Your mum was drunk too.”
Mum had been drunk? At fifteen?
“You can’t ever have the full facts,” Phyllis said, and briefly turned her demolished face on Rosy, “so don’t go holding grudges. Especially not someone else’s.”
That brought more anger, but Rosy controlled herself. “I only want to see him. That’s all. I have no intention of ever forgiving him.”
“That’s fine, dear,” Phyllis said. “It’s your pain. You may hold onto it, or let it go.”
Rosy glared out at the traffic. Of all the people to stick up for Gus Friendship’s son.
Rosy sat silent while Phyllis parked on a hatched rectangle marked Private in a cobbled area for permit holders only. Rosy had lived all her life in Edinburgh, but visited Stockbridge maybe three times, aware this was Frank’s haunt, and not, therefore, anywhere for her.
Certainly, Rosy had never heard of St Bernard’s Place, the street Phyllis had driven down, but she hadn’t missed much: St Bernard’s Place was just another Edinburgh street of elegant Georgian buildings, businesses giving up one at a time to the creeping mould of charity shops.
On the drive past, Rosy had spotted the cafe where Frank must work. At first glance, she’d thought the place was called Nasty Bite and, by the looks of it, the name fit perfectly. But the first letter T of the sign had come loose, and hung at an angle.
Tasty Bite. Tasty. Yeah, right.
“Ready?” Phyllis said.
The woman’s voice in that muffled leather interior startled Rosy.
“Just to be clear,” Rosy said. “I only want to say hello, have a private word with him, then leave.”
“Fine by me,” Phyllis said.
“And he’s definitely not expecting us?”
“As you requested, Rosy, I’ve said nothing to Frank. Not a word. You’ll see him at his worst.”
“Okay,” she said, and her innards slackened. “I’m ready.”
A bell above the door of the Tasty Bite betrayed them with a ding that made Rosy cringe. She followed Phyllis inside, trying to hide behind the little woman. Bleach, toast, stale coffee. The smell of the place hit her, dizzied her, threatened to topple her.
Everything. Even the light that fell across the floor, dirtied by the blistered film on the windows. Frank’s world. Shit brown. Shit hole.
Rosy wanted to escape, but Phyllis’s arm snagged her, held her, drew her into the cafe’s dingy bowels.
A retired couple stood by the cash register, engaged in directing the shadow that squatted behind the counter to something in the glass cabinet. Rosy could see the tongs. Frank must be holding those tongs. Rosy hated that her heart had started to hammer, as though this place, this person were in any way significant. The tongs closed on a scone.
“Sit,” a ponderous voice said. “I’ll bring it.”
The customers moved aside and there, straightening up and turning his back on her, loomed Frank. She watched hands big as a farmer’s attached to forearms thicker than Findlay’s legs deposit the scone on a plate, then poke a teabag into a china teapot.
Rosy’s breath stalled and if the hard hook of Phyllis’s arm hadn’t held her steady, she would have turned and run.
“Gimme a minute.” Frank’s words struggled around a thick tongue. Had something happened to his face? Damaged his mouth so he couldn’t talk? He glanced over the bulk of his shoulder, recognised Phyllis, turned, then his eyes met Rosy’s.
Rosy’s heart clutched tight and forgot the beat.
“Rosy?” Frank said. The teapot tumbled from fat fingers, exploded on the floor. “Uh. My baby.”
Thanks for reading this sample of Screw Friendship.
Rosy has now seen Frank. Maybe more importantly, Frank has now seen Rosy. So what happens next?
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