Alyson knew that listening to
other people’s conversations was wrong but she didn’t care. In
any case, this wasn’t a conversation – it was a row, and a
full-blooded row at that.
“You don’t want me and I
certainly don’t want you,” her mother screamed.
It had been going on for twenty
minutes. Alyson was surprised it hadn’t happened before. She’d
known about her father’s affairs. At first, when she was younger,
he’d scarcely hidden them from her, thinking perhaps she’d been
too young to understand – her father always thought that she didn’t
understand anything. Her mother’s affair with Paul was different.
That had been kept secret – until the day Alyson had borrowed her
mother’s mobile when hers had been stolen. Paul had sent three text
messages to her mother each one making it clear to the simplest mind
what was going on and, Alyson knew she wasn’t simple.
At first she’d been upset and,
then, more curious than upset. They’d been doing sex in class at
school and she knew all about that kind of thing. She’d known about
it before that. Alyson didn’t actually blame her mother – Paul
was gorgeous and drove a white BMW convertible – but she was
shocked at her mother’s stupidity in lending her the mobile without
warning Paul. She thought perhaps her mother had wanted her to know.
She recalled the row when she
was nine and her mother had found out about her father’s first
girlfriend – ‘tart’, her mother had said. She had listened to
them rowing then, too – she couldn’t help it, the row had been so
loud. She hadn’t known her parents used, or even knew, such words.
Later she’d tried out some of them on her parents and had been told
off. They were always criticising her for quarrelling, too. It really
But this time it seemed really
serious. She would have to put a stop to it ... again. She walked up
the last few steps of the communal staircase and stepped into the
kitchen of their little flat.
“Shut up!” she said in her
best quiet and dignified voice.
No-one heard her and the
slanging match continued.
“I wouldn’t care if it was
anyone but Paul. He’s barely half your age. You could be his
mother,” Alyson’s father shouted, and slammed his fist on the
table so that the crockery rattled.
“That tramp Tania is less
than half your age. She isn’t much older than Alyson.”
“Shut up!” yelled Alyson as
loudly as she could. She had intended to be grown-up like Sharon on
her mother’s favourite soap, but she couldn’t quite manage it and
she realised with horror that she was crying.
But she wasn’t going to be a
baby. She remembered her father’s words to her when she’d been
quarrelling with a friend, so she wiped her hand across her eyes and
took a deep breath.
“Stop shouting and grow up,”
But, now, despite her resolve,
the tears were flowing freely. She knew she was losing it and through
the mist of her agony, she didn’t notice that her parents had
fallen silent and turned towards her. She shouted again.
“Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.”
She ran to her father and beat
her fists against his chest. At first he did nothing to stop her but,
eventually, he drew her to him and held her tightly so she couldn’t
move. She struggled free, cutting herself on the metal strap of his
watch, and hurried over to her mother who held her as if she didn’t
know quite what to do next. Alyson wasn’t comforted but she had
stopped crying. You can’t be angry and cry at the same time, she
“It’s all right,” her
mother murmured distractedly. “It’s all right, Love. Calm down.”
She could scarcely have said
anything less calming. Alyson erupted again at the unfairness of the
“Me? It’s you and Dad who
should calm down. You’re both the same.”
“Don’t, Love. We’re just
having a grown-up row. That’s all. It’s nothing for you to worry
“You said you didn’t want
Dad and he didn’t want you.”
“I don’t think Dad really
meant it, do you?”
“He didn’t say it. You said
it. And you said you don’t want him either.” Alyson was confused
and frightened. Her parents had been rowing often lately, but usually
they made some effort not to let her hear – although, of course,
she had heard. This time, they had made no such effort.
She turned to her father. “Are
you still seeing Tania?”
“It’s got nothing to do with
you, Ally. It’s between your mother and me.”
“It is to do with me if you
and Mom are going to get divorced. Mom’s only seeing Paul because
you were sleeping with that Tania.”
“You certainly were,”
Margaret Hedges said. “It’d been going on for months and I didn’t
say anything because I didn’t want to upset Ally.”
“Well, you’ve upset her now.
You with that kid, Paul.”
Alyson’s parents started the
accusations and insults again, completely ignoring her. She listened
quietly trying to understand. She loved them both but they were
saying such dreadful things to each other. She knew some of it was
true but she knew that some of what they were saying was just people
She remembered how Chrissie, her
best friend, had rowed with her. She’d told tales on Chrissie. She
hadn’t meant to but somehow she had – and Chrissie had found out.
Chrissie had said the most horriblest things to her and she’d
deserved it. But some things Chrissie had said weren’t true and
that had hurt badly. Eventually, they had made up but things had
changed. She thought, perhaps, they were better friends now than they
had been before.
She hoped that was how it would
be for her parents.
But the row was going on. Part
of her was listening to the words and part of her was just hoping
they’d shut up, hoping that it would all go away. When it didn’t,
she tried to shut it out of her mind. She found herself noticing
things that she wouldn’t normally notice. The tear in the wallpaper
behind the fridge. It looked like a dragon, she thought. She could
smell the aftermath of the morning’s burnt toast – or was it the
dragon’s breath? She saw that her father still hadn’t fixed that
bit of trim on the kitchen unit. It had broken away completely now
and Mom would be angry about that.
But now Mom was shouting about
Tania again and Dad was yelling about Paul. Neither of her parents
seemed aware of her presence.
Slowly, Alyson walked over to
the kitchen table and picked up the pile of crockery that had rattled
when her father had slammed his fist on the table at the beginning of
the row. She lifted it shoulder high and then lowered it. Then,
quickly, she lifted her arms again and sent the whole pile in the
direction of the ceiling. The crocks seemed to fly upwards ever so
slowly and, then, curve over and come down, almost floating, and she
watched until they smashed against the hard, ceramic tiles. Every
plate was broken. And every cup. And every saucer and every dish.
Even her favourite egg-cup that looked like a pig that Chrissie had
brought her back from holiday one year. It seemed somehow right that
that too had broken.
Alyson gazed in awe at the
devastation she had wrought and didn’t notice at first that her
parents had stopped shouting. They, too, were staring at the mess.
Then her mother bent down without a word and began to clear up the
Alyson said, “I had to stop
you. I had to stop you. And it worked, didn’t it?”
“That was a stupid thing to
do,” her father said.
“Not half as stupid as you and
Mom rowing like that. You were going on and on and on. As if it was
all something new. You’ve been sleeping with that Tania and if
Mom’s been sleeping with Paul that’s your fault. You think that
just because I’m only eleven, I don’t understand things. But I
“I haven’t been sleeping
with Paul. I’ve just been out with him once or twice.” But
Margaret’s words didn’t carry conviction.
“What about the texts I found
on your phone when mine was stolen? You forgot them, didn’t you? I
read them. They were disgusting.”
“You’ve been letting Ally
read text messages from Paul?” John Hedges demanded. “How sick is
“Shut up!” Alyson shouted at
the very top of her voice. “There was nothing you couldn’t hear
on telly and, anyway, I heard you on the phone to Tania so I know
what I know. You’re both the same. I’m not a child any more. I
know about sex and everything. You talk about me growing up. Well, I
have. But you haven’t.”
She turned and walked out of the
kitchen, slamming the door behind her. Then, she turned and locked
“I’ve locked the door,”
she called, “and I’m not opening it again until you make up. And
don’t shout too loud or you’ll disturb old Mrs Latham
She leaned against the door,
panting, although she hadn’t run anywhere. She looked over the
bannisters and wasn’t surprised to see Mrs Latham peering out of
the door to her flat. Alyson put her tongue out and wiggled her face.
“And you can mind your own business, too,” she shouted,
and pulled another face.
She was sorry immediately.
Pulling faces and being rude was not being grown-up and she was
determined to be grown-up – but it was too late to apologise. Mrs
Latham had retreated behind her own door. Well, never mind, she was
an interfering cow, anyway.
So far there had been no sound
from behind the kitchen door but, after a moment, she heard the door
handle turn and her father’s voice said, “She’s locked it.”
“I said I had. I’m not
letting you out till you’ve stopped rowing.”
Her father said, “You’ll
have to. I have to go to work soon and you’ve got to go to school.
Now, stop being a fool and let us out.”
“I’m not letting you out
until you’ve made up. You’re as bad as each other. I’m not
going to school and, if you don’t make up, you’re not going to
work. You’ll have to explain why to Mr Bates.”
“Come on, Ally,” Mrs Hedges
said, “You’ve made your point. You don’t have to carry it on
for ever. Let us out.”
“Not till you’ve made up.”
“Look,” her mother said,
“we’re sorry we’ve upset you.”
“You’re not really. You’re
just sorry I’ve locked you in. I’m going to wait here until I
hear you say sorry to each other and sound as if you mean it. You say
sorry and say you’re not going to get separated and all that stuff,
and that you’re going to stop going out with other people.”
It took four hours. There was
more rows, most of them now directed at Ally, but she was determined
not to give in. Her parents tried threats and wheedling and promises
– false promises, Ally felt sure. Several times her parents said
sorry to each other but never in way that Ally felt was genuine. “I
don’t care if it takes all day and all night as well,” she said.
“I can go down to the chippy for something to eat.”
She knew it was blackmail but
she had had it with her parents rows and she wasn’t going to give
in. At last, she heard first her father, and then her mother,
apologise to the other and promise not to have a separation.
“No more boyfriends or
girlfriends,” she prompted.
“No more boyfriends,” her
“No more girlfriends,” her
Ally opened the door. She wasn’t
convinced – she wasn’t a fool – but it was the best she could
do. She sighed wearily. Perhaps it would work this time. She walked
slowly downstairs. She would say ‘sorry’ to Mrs Latham.