Michelle tosses the pen between her fingers, staring blankly at the page of maths problems on her lap, her feet tucked up underneath her on the sofa. Maths is such bullshit as far as she’s concerned. It’s not like she’s ever going to need to know how long the line on a triangle is. Most of the time, she gets James to help her, and by help, she means do it for her, but he had to go and join the drama club at school, didn’t he, and have to stay behind to rehearse for the Sound of Music. He was a shoo-in for the part, obviously. Though she’d have paid good money to see him putting on a frock and twirling around playing Maria.
Still, if he thinks she’s wasting time and money watching him prance about the stage in a fancy suit pretending to be a Da to four kids and struggling through Adeilweiss, he’s got another thing coming. Especially not with that insufferable Jenny Joyce playing his wee girl.
“Where is he?” her mum asks out loud, looking out the window. “Christ, he said rehearsals ended at five. I’ve no time to go out and pick him up if that’s what he’s looking.”
“Course he wouldn’t ask for a lift, Ma,” Michelle reminds her, scribbling down a few numbers, not really paying attention. “Too bloody polite for that.”
“Aye, well you could learn a wee bit from him in that regard,” Deidrie tells her, moving away from the window. She’s wearing a coat over her nurse’s uniform and glaring at the clock like she can make James appear at the door by sheer will power alone.
Michelle looks up at the clock herself, surprised to see it’s gone half five. The school is five minutes away by bus, and that bus comes every five minutes. Not surprised enough to be worried, despite the stupid nauseating feeling in her stomach.
“There he is now,” Deidrie sighs when they hear a key in the lock. “Christ he’s lucky he got home when he did.” Michelle goes back to her homework, waving her hand absentmindedly when she hears him shuffle into the room. “Jesus James what have you done to yourself!” her mother shrieks, making Michelle jump six feet in the air, nearly knocking over her tea.
But it’s the sight she sees when she turns that nearly makes her jump higher. James’ stupidly apologetic face is battered; his left eye is swollen and purple, as is his lip, which is bleeding, and there’s a nasty looking gash on his forehead, making his hair stick to it, not to mention a bruise on his right cheek and cut on his chin with blood smeared across his chin and down his neck. He’s carrying his blazer, and the sleeve of his jumper is torn. He can’t even stand straight, sort of helplessly swaying, like Michelle when she’s drunk.
“I’m fine, really,” he begins, but his voice is small.
“Aye, you look it, come here.” Deidrie grabs him by the arm and drags him into the kitchen. Michelle doesn’t hesitate in dropping her book and pen and following. She’s been tempted to give James a whack on more than one occasion, but this isn’t a whack. This isn’t even in the same neighbourhood as a whack. Deidrie sits him down at the table, despite his insistences that he’s okay. She gets out the Quality Street tin for medical supplies and begins taking everything out one by one, plasters, wipes, gauze, some ointment Michelle can never remember the name of, just that it stings like hell.
“I’m fine, Auntie Deidrie, really,” he says. “And don’t you have work tonight?” Michelle smirks to herself. He’s not as thick as he looks. Deidrie sighs, looking at the clock and back at him. She knows he’s right.
“First off, tell me what happened,” she orders. “No funny business. Tell me what happened.”
“It was my own fault,” he admits, shrugging then wincing. “I wasn’t looking where I was going, and I tripped.”
“You tripped?” Deidrie echoes.
“Yeah.” Deidrie looks at the clock with a resigned sigh.
“You go on, Mum, I’ll clean him up,” Michelle says.
“Do you know how to do all this?” she asks.
“Of course. I’ve seen you do it all the time. Now go.” Deidrie gives James another quick once-over before taking her back off the counter and rushing out the door. Michelle turns back to James with folded arms. He’s practically shrunk in his chair. “You must think we’re full of balls, don’t you?”
“I’m not entirely familiar with that particular expression,” he replies, neatly dodging the question.
“You must think we’re fucking stupid James!” she exclaims, grabbing the stuff from the counter and pulling over another chair so she can sit opposite him. If possible, he looks even worse up close. His eye is practically swollen shut, the blood around the cut on his forehead is still oozing out, and he’s having trouble focusing on Michelle. Given how swollen his lips are it’s amazing he can actually talk. “You did all this by tripping over?” She makes a start by wiping away the blood on his neck, then dabbing at the cut on his forehead.
“It was the street outside the shops,” he protests, wincing as she wipes his cut. “You know how hard that ground is. All those… uneven cobblestones.”
“James!” She would punch him herself if he wasn’t in such a state. “Cut the crap, okay? I’ve tripped on that street, far less sober than you are right now, and I’ve not come away like this so what bloody happened?”
James looks down at his hands, which are joined together in his lap. His chin starts wobbling and she nearly screams. If he starts crying she’ll finish what whoever did this started.
“Don’t tell Auntie Deidrie,” he says, his voice thick. “Swear you won’t tell her, Michelle. Scratch that, won’t tell anyone. Not your mum, not Erin, or Clare or Orla, or anyone. Promise?”
“Right, fine I promise,” she says.
“I popped into the shop on my way back,” he whispers. “Just wanted a bit of sugar. While I was in there, there were these three lads from the boy’s school in the line behind me. I guess they heard me talk. Heard my accent.” He presses his hands tighter together. “And so when I was coming out they jumped on me, this one lad. Asked me where I was from. What I was doing in Derry.”
“What did you tell him?” she asks. He’s ducked his head so low she can’t see his face, but his shoulders are shaking. She feels sick to her stomach and she wasn’t even there.
“The truth. I just thought if I told them the truth they’d leave me alone,” he explains. “They didn’t. It’s all kind of a blur, to be honest. One pushed the down, then rolled me over and just started hitting me. They ran off when someone came out of the shop and threatened to call the police. He offered me a lift home but I told him I could walk it.”
Michelle feels like she’s going to vomit. She knew back when James first moved here that people wouldn’t love the English thing, heck that’s why he puts on a green blazer and sits behind her on the bus annoying her and holding Erin’s hand, making her want to boke, every morning. But there’s a big difference between knowing it might happen and seeing the after effects of it happening, and it makes her hands shake. They should be over this by now, both sides should. And going after a little prick like James who can hardly defend himself…
“Who were they?” she asks, tilting James’ chin up so she can wipe ointment on his cut. “I want names.”
“It’s not like I asked,” he replies. “Did you think I’d stop in the middle of being beat up to ask for names-ow! That really stings, Michelle!”
“Ah you’re such a baby,” she tells him. “Right no names, faces. Give me faces.”
“It’s not like I had a camera with me,” he protests. She keeps quiet for now, keeping cleaning him up. “Thanks. You don’t have to do this.”
“Aye course I do,” she says without thinking, and he starts smiling despite the cut on his lip. “Well it’s not like you could do it yourself and my mam would kill me if I let you bleed over her tablecloth.” Still, the smile doesn’t fade. She patches him up with gauze on the forehead and a plaster on the chin and cheek. She gets up and goes to the freezer. They don’t have ice packs, but she gets a beg of frozen peas for his eye. “You look like such a prick.”
“I know,” he mutters, holding the peas over his swollen eye. He moves to stand and she rises with him.
“Still not willing to rat them out?”
“Even if I knew their names I wouldn’t tell you.”
“Do you want to… maybe… talk about it?”
He raises his eyebrows at her, utterly in shock, and she rolls her eyes back.
“Look, I’m new at this, okay?”
“It’s fine,” he sighs. “And really… all I want to do is lie down.” He needs it too. She doesn’t want to let him go, but she also knows she won’t win this, so she nods and lets him pass. Before he goes, he grabs her wrist, looking pleadingly at her. “You won’t tell?”
“Snitches get stitches,” she says. “And you’ve had enough of them.”
She watches as he makes his way to the stairs, staggering slightly. Her hands curl into fists, acrylic nails pressing into her palms.
She thinks how long it’s been since she was in a fight.
The next day, they’re at the shop Michelle and James outside while Erin, Orla and Clare buy their morning pick n mix. They lean against the wall, warm in their woollen blazers in the spring weather. Still, James seems to be wearing his like a suit of armour.
“Are you okay?” she asks him quietly. The bruises are still standing out starkly on his pale face. She imagines he’ll get all sorts of questions from Sister Michael, and she knows the ‘tripped while walking’ excuse won’t work with her and her zero bullshit tolerance policy. It barely worked on Erin and Clare, though it definitely worked with Orla, but everything works for her.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” he replies.
“You know, once Jenny Joyce sees you, she’ll probably get the entire cast of the Sound of Music to sign a wee card for you,” she jokes, and laughs as he groans.
“Don’t tell me that.”
“With a wee teddy bear as well,” she cackles. “Imagine Erin if she finds out Jenny Joyce is sending you teddies.”
“She’d go ballistic,” he agrees, smiling. But the smile soon fades when a group of lads their age from Christian Brothers come down the street, laughing obnoxiously and whooping. James keeps pressing his back to the brick wall like he can disappear into it, his face turning grey. His gaze drops to the floor when they start coming in their direction.
“Is that them?” she asks in a low voice. “James is that them?” All he can do is nod quickly. They pass by them, glaring daggers at James, and Michelle manages to get a good look at them. “Holy crap, that middle one, the skinhead, he’s Eoin McConnor.”
“You know him?”
“I shagged him.” If she didn’t regret shagging him before she sure as fuck does now. The little shite.
Still, at least they shagged at his place. And his mates live close by. And she knows just the place to wait for them.
Michelle sits in wait, crouching behind a small shed next to the shop, keeping her eye on the bus stop. She pulls her black jacket tighter around her, her hair pulled into a tight ponytail. She’s even forgone wearing hoops, despite how naked she feels without them. She’s seen first hand what happens to hoop earrings when someone’s in a fight. First year, Christmas party, Jessica Moore. Wasn’t pretty.
She hears them before she sees them, hollering as they jump off the bus. Probably didn’t even thank the bus driver. Lucky she’s here to beat some manners into them, otherwise their mammies would have to do it for them.
“Here, you lot,” she yells, coming out from behind her hiding place. The turn to face her, two of them with their noses wrinkling, but Eoin lets out a loud laugh. Too loud.
“What about you, Michelle?” he asks, and turns to his mates, tapping one in the chest. “This here’s Michelle. Sure didn’t I tell you about her? She’s the one I did at the Halloween party last year.”
“Do you go around telling your mates about every girl you shag?” she asks. “Or am I just special?”
“Oh aye,” one of his mates says. “The one with the English cousin?”
“Aye, the one with the English cousin,” she confirms. Her fists are clenched already and she’s itching to get the firs swing in.
“He’s such a prick!” the third exclaims, leaning on his friend.
“Hey!” she explodes. “He might be a prick. But I am the only one who gets to call him a prick!”
“Here, calm the fuck down Michelle,” Eoin says. “Sure what’s the problem?”
“The problem is my cousin came in last night looking like hell!”
“Sure he always looks like that,” one snickers.
“I will thank you to shut the hell up!” she commands. “Now, I need to know, was it you lot who did that to him?” The three of them dissolves into pathetic laughter. “Answer me!”
“Aye, it was,” Eoin says, sauntering up to her. She forgets what she ever saw in him. “And so what if we did, Michelle. Come on, he was asking for it, for Christ’s sake.”
“You know something Eoin?” She steps closer and whispers in his ear. “Having a big dick means nothing if it’s mostly your personality.”
With that, she pulls her first back, and it hands right on Eoin’s jaw-
“Sweet Jesus, Michelle,” Deidrie sighs. “I swear between you and James I’ll be running out of supplies. It’s like a bloody warzone in here!”
Michelle sits at the kitchen table, wincing from the ointment her mum dabs on the scrape on her china and gash on her forehead. She’s also got a black eye to match James’, albeit not as swollen. She knows how to defend herself.
“And these girls just jumped out on top of you?” she asks.
“Aye, didn’t even see them coming. Not even Big Mandy and she’s not what you’d call light on her feet,” she answers. “Lucky I’ve got such sharp reflexes.” She smirks to herself. Eoin especially will have fun trying to explain how he got that particular bruise on his cheekbone. Lucky she remembered to wear the gold rings that night.
“Right, that should do it love,” she says. “I don’t know if I want the two of you wandering around alone now if this carry on is happening.”
“Well, Erin’s insistent on walking me home after rehearsal from now on,” James says from where he leans on the counter. “So you don’t need to worry about me.”
“Oh I’m sure she wants to walk you home,” Michelle jokes, wiggling her eyebrows. James sighs heavily but doesn’t say anything.
“Right, I’m away to work,” Deidrie says. “Your daddy’s coming back in about half an hour. No funny business, you two.”
They hear the front door click shut, leaving them alone in the house. Michelle busies herself clearing away the medical stuff, while James just stands at the counter.
“Do you want to help out here, you dick?” she asks.
“You know, it’s odd that Big Mandy got the jump on you,” he says, not moving. “Considering how loud she is when she walks.”
“Aye, well I was in a world of my own,” she replies.
“And I didn’t even think she lived around there,” he continues. “And… oh yeah, she’s on the Paris trip right now, so she’s not in Derry at the moment.”
Fuck. How did she not notice that? Maybe school had been a little less intimidating and a little more peaceful without her around. Not that she’s intimidated by Mandy.
“Is she?” she asks casually. “Well must have been someone who looked a lot like her.”
“Does anyone look like Mandy?” he asks, snorting. “You know there’s a rumour that some girl was in a fight tonight. Heard it while I was in the supermarket with your mum. She took on three boys from Christian Brothers.” The room falls quiet and Michelle’s heart begins to get louder. She doesn’t even look at James, but she can feel the stupid smile on his face. Her own face flushes red. God she hates being caught in a lie. It happens nearly every time she does it and she hates it each time.
Suddenly, James’ arms are around her waist, pulling her tightly against him. Her whole body freezes, but she finds her arms around his shoulders too. She hopes to God he isn’t crying, because she can’t get snot all over this top. And he might set her off too.
“Thank you,” he whispers sincerely. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Course I did,” she insists, pulling away from him. “They’re dicks. They had to be taught some manners. And anyway…” She flicks him with a tea towel. “No one calls you a prick and roughs you up and gets away with it.”
“Except for you?” he asks cheekily. She should thump him or call him a dick for that. Instead, she just laughs.
“Aye, except for me.”