153 Elgin Road

At 6.17 pm a train ground to a halt at Seven Kings railway station. A number of people had left their seats, mostly evening commuters returning from work in central London. Amid the placid gathering waiting to alight, were two young men conversing loudly. As the train stopped, the substantial silhouette of one of the lads could be seen leaving the carriage with a loping swagger. He was followed, by a companion of slighter stature and a less assertive demeanour, onto the damp concrete. After several steps toward the stairs leading to the exit, the larger of the lads turned around and irritably ushered his friend forward with the words “C’mon Grant, you dozy spaz!”. Torn out of his apparent daze, Grant hastily caught up with the other, asking “Josh, you do know where this is. Don’t you?” – “Searched it on google maps’, Josh replied, pulling his smart phone from the pocket of his tracksuit bottoms – “We turn right out of the station”. The two young men followed the sparse, disinterested crowd down the stairwell, through the barriers, and out into the brisk winter evening. They did not exchange so much as a word as they turned right after exiting the mouth of the station and walked down the street.

The pavement was dappled with small dark puddles that bled yellow gloss from the lamps above. As always, they were enveloped by the flat roar of passing vehicles, to which all city dwellers become inured. As they came to a corner, Josh took his phone from his pocket, scanned it briefly, turned to his companion and said “left again, and then the first right.” Grant nodded in acknowledgement. Josh, who was growing tired of the doleful silence, decided to use this opening to attempt conversation: “You see the match yesterday?” – “umm…which one?” There was almost always a match yesterday; Grant suspected that this was merely to facilitate small-talk among men. “Arsenal and Liverpool, those scous’ twats got massacred”. Grant nodded again and made a sound intended as an enthusiastic assent. The conversation gradually picked up, and continued in an animated manner. They were oblivious to the passing of a stranger, who glanced wearily up at them, sharply aware of their easy rapport, of the hardness of the pavement under his feet and the fragility of his place on it.

Our companions made their way down the broad suburban road. Grant was shivering. His slight frame was only covered by jeans and a shirt, that out of all his wardrobe’s scant contents, he thought most appropriate. Josh wore his usual trainers and hooded tracksuit. The houses were semi-detached – clusters of 4 terraced double-storey buildings, separated by narrow alleyways, each with a short driveway. They were all built to the same design, varying only in decoration. Some sported trees, shrubbery and small gardens. Others were concrete resting places for their owners’ cars. The pair eventually came to a house with 153 on its door. Its exterior was pebble-dashed, with the exception of the two protruding ground-floor windows, which were the same white as those of all the other houses. The concrete path leading up to the door was crested on either side by overgrown flowerbeds; tufts of grass shot up between the cracks in its coarse surface. Josh glanced at the driveway and then at Grant, guffawing and saying “I bet you any money, she’s a mouldy old bint!” Grant looked up at the square window above the semi-circular arch around the front door. This, along with both the left and right downstairs windows, was illuminated. Josh walked up the driveway; Grant followed.

Josh knocked loudly. The door opened slightly and a face framed by long hair peered out. After a time the door was opened by a woman of average height who appeared to be in her early thirties. She stepped out, smiled and ushered them in. In physicality, posture and dress, she thought that she exuded a degree of dignity; her warm amber eyes expressed a resigned, knowing maturity, having seen both peace and pain in forms and quantities unfathomable to the two young visitors. If intently studied, she supposed, they might betray substrata of despair and dread: a reflection of their being dragged daily, along with the rest of her usually tired countenance, through gradually compounding banality. She had evidently spend some time in preparing her appearance. She wore a long dress of a subdued purple that swept over her figure in a flattering manner. Her hair fell in broad glossy curls, their tips tickling her satin-clad back. She doubted that either of these young men staring at her noticed even a fraction of what she saw in her reflection as she dressed and applied her make-up earlier. She hoped that she looked younger than 41.

Both lads looked at her for a while, not knowing what to do. Josh smiled and blustered in immediately at Janet’s invitation. Grant hung back for a while, on the threshold, making brief, unsure eye-contact with her. Trying to conceal his discomfort, he crept into the hallway and into the lounge where Josh had already ensconced himself in an armchair and was surveying the room. Josh raised an eyebrow to Grant as he entered. Grant perched on the chair opposite Josh and stared at his hands, which rested on his slender thighs, in tense contortion. The room in which they sat was autumnally coloured and the upholstery slightly worn. The entire house had a peculiar smell. There was an old TV resting on a pine stand. On the table by it, lay a newspaper and a number of books of which yet more were stacked on several sets of shelves.

Janet closed the door behind the lads and stood in the hallway. She privately berated herself for deciding, in a moment of listless desire for something new, that this would be a good idea. She composed herself and thought reassuring thoughts. They’re just young men, simple creatures; they should be a cinch compared to the other men she has the misfortune of dealing with. She entered the room from the hall and stood a little stiffly before the strangers. She addressed Josh – who has been steadily regarding her from his comfortable position – asking whether he was the Josh who she had contacted. He affirmed this. He certainly looked like the 24-year-old fitness instructor as advertised on his profile. He also looked a lot like one of those hoodies that she sometimes read about in the paper. At this thought, she lambasted herself for being so middle-aged: “Fashions change!” She inferred that the skinny young man sat opposite Josh was the friend who she agreed to invite. She still couldn’t recall why exactly she had agreed to this. She asked his name. “Grant”, he responded curtly.

She saw the two lads as against a domestic backdrop so familiar that it was almost as though the boys were all she really saw, isolated in a series of rooms made benign through repetition. She observed that they appeared and certainly acted younger than they advertised, especially Grant, who came across as very shy. Experience and a few brief instances of eye contact told her that Grant may have had a greater depth of character while Josh just seemed opaque. His eyes said very little and were lost amid his physicality, which at all moments seemed to have a solidity, an almost ursine quality that unnerved Janet. Perhaps it was so striking because of the contrast between the forms of the two young men. Grant made a very different impression on her mind, not at all as solid as his companion, seeming almost to flicker as a candle’s flame.

From the moment Grant entered the house, he was beset with nauseating unease, he was compelled to take in every detail, but was unable to do so as the shrapnel of his overwhelmingly unfamiliar surroundings pierced his senses. He found that it was necessary to ground himself by resting his eyes on the familiar sight of his hands clasped in his lap. Whenever he glanced upward, his mind would be lurched into a realm of dizzying uncertainty, whereupon a scattering of details would spring upon him with alarming ferocity and he would retreat again, each time adding a little more to the room inside his skull. He had particular difficulty in forming a lasting impression of Janet, for although he was usually relatively calm around older women, he felt a mixture of shame and apprehension about the intention of his and Josh’s visit.

Meanwhile Josh sat, and casually observed the others. He favoured his friend with a pained glance, noting his skittish behaviour with disdain and wondering why he had brought him along in the first place. It was in return for a favour, he recalled. He lazily turned to look at Janet, who was clearly made uncomfortable by the silence. He found her unease a little stimulating. He regarded her as a conquest more than anything else, the epithet: “quite fit” would suffice as a visual description. As for his immediate surroundings, he made a blanket observation that the room reminded him of his grandmother’s flat. He found this thought unpleasant and tried to discard it. This was made difficult by the faint odour of must and a host of other domestic accretions that permeated the house. He didn’t find it foul or oppressive; what disturbed Josh was that his association of this house and his “nan’s” would haunt him to the point that his performance suffered later. This was, however, his only real anxiety. He was fairly confident that the coming conversation would be mild, the meal mediocre and the act of notching his bedpost satisfying.

Janet glanced between Josh and Grant. Both young men made her nervous, but for different reasons. Neither had a particularly expressive face – though Josh smiled a lot more, she couldn’t deny it was a pleasing, albeit mechanical, expression. Grant was so tense it was hard for her to look at him without her shoulders tightening. Josh seemed extremely calm. It was a calm that people tended to envy and fear, as it seemed to project a terrifying lack of inhibition and self-doubt. Eventually she broke the silence, saying to Josh “I know you’re a fitness instructor,” and turning to Grant “But what do you do?” Grant looked startled and quickly replied that he was a student. She asked him what he studied. The look Josh gave him persuaded him not to say he was doing his A levels. Instead, he tried to think of a plausible degree. His mind went rapidly in several directions and he simply couldn’t keep track of it. He ended up saying “biology”, simply because that was his best subject. She nodded, and said that she never had the head for science, and studied English as an undergraduate. She then asked what a biology degree involves? He stared into his lap for a while, concentrating. Without looking up he said “Genetics, genetic engineering, respiration, photosynthesis and that sort of thing, processes and structures of cells, enzymes and molecules… uhmm.. molecular biology, a lot of that.” He ended rather clumsily. He looked up to see Janet smiling and nodding. “I barely remember my degree. I know it ruined fiction for me for years afterwards. Too much critical theory.” Grant was looking at Janet intently now, leaning slightly forward on the settee, while Josh reclined and watched them both blankly.

Janet went on: “I taught English for a while, now I work from home. I do freelance editing, I write copy, I take what I can get. I wouldn’t be able to do it without the Internet.” Grant continued to stare at her. He didn’t know what writing copy meant; he’d never considered working from home, but liked the idea. “That’s… cool” Grant said, immediately lambasting himself for using the word “cool”. Janet looked at Grant for some time, he was silent and downcast. She turned to Josh: “So what does a fitness instructor do?” Josh smiled calmly and said that he worked at a gym. He often gave new members an induction, showed them the cardio and resistance machines then lets them loose. “If they want to be taught to use free weights, they have to sign up for special training. Otherwise, I just hang around helping the odd person and wipe the sweat off everything at the end of the day.” Both Grant and Janet looked a little nonplussed; neither of them have ever seen the inside of a gym. “That’s interesting” Janet eventually replied. After introductions were out of the way, they discussed music, film and banalities such as the weather and current affairs. It was at times excruciatingly awkward, especially as Grant was forced to do a lot of the talking by Josh’s complacent silence. By the time they heard a beeping sound from down the corridor, and Janet excused herself to check on the dinner, Grant had relaxed a little and was warming to Janet. “She does go on. Doesn’t she?” Josh said with a yawn. Grant was a little offended by this, but nodded and agreed half-heartedly. Both Josh and Grant were sat in silence when Janet returned. “If you’d like to follow me, dinner is served.” She said. Grant got up quickly and walked up to her before she turned around. Josh followed more languidly, switching off the light as he left. As Grant walked a pace behind Janet, he couldn’t help but notice how narrow her waist was and contrast this with the fullness of her hips.

They sat down around a small table overlooked by old family photos and a few abstract and semi-abstract paintings. The family photos seemed very old indeed, as Janet was clearly not in the habit of cooking for many people. In front of each person was a bowl of lasagna, a bowl of salad, some cutlery and a wine glass. There was a tray in the centre that still held a substantial amount of lasagna. The lads were glad that the meal was simple and hearty, Grant especially, as he wasn’t used to eating at a table and was terrified of complex etiquette. They ate largely in silence. All condiments and utensils were within reach of everyone so there was no need to talk. This was agreeable to all. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was awkward. Janet refilled her wine glass twice; wine tended to relax her. Grant took this as a cue to wash his food down with several glasses of wine. Now the only thing that slowed down his frenetic eating was his clumsiness with a knife and fork. Josh shot him several disapproving looks but these only made him more nervous. Grant finished first and was fidgeting with the serving spoon, wondering whether he should have a second serving. Janet watched him with dismay and mild amusement. She asked him if he’d like some desert. He nodded. She brought a blueberry tart and some custard through from the kitchen, placing them on the table and cutting Grant a slice. Grant thanked her and bashfully got to work on his dessert, taking pains to eat it as slowly as possible. Soon Josh asked if Janet could show him to the bathroom. At first she gave him directions but he insisted on being escorted. Reluctantly and with a quizzical expression, Janet got up and showed Josh out of the room. She briefly looked at Grant with good-humoured perplexity as she left. Grant stared at them, mystified and holding an ort of tart inches away from his closed mouth for some time.

Josh walked close behind Janet. While she wasn’t quite what one would call petite, Josh, who was six-foot-two and broad, towered over her. As she mounted the stairs he followed her closely. When one of her feet left a step, he swiftly replaced it with his. She felt his burly arm brush against her shoulder as he reached for the banister beside her. He clung to her like her shadow. She could feel his warm vinous  breath on her scalp. She could hear each heavy breath and began to feel smothered and claustrophobia, debating whether to turn around and confront him. He placed his right hand on the small of her back; she became a little tense. She was feeling the effects of the wine and the solidity of the contact made her a bit giddy. She relaxed somewhat as his hand gradually slid down and fondled her right buttock. This was why the young men were here after all, she thought, nothing more than lust. As they reached the top of the stairs, he put his left hand on her waist and allowed his right to glide up around her torso and cup her right breast. She stopped in her tracks and let out a faint sigh. She could feel his erection pressing into her back.

Grant was enjoying his tart. He had nearly finished it and was becoming anxious about Josh and Janet’s absence. He had suspected that Josh was going to make a move on her. He remembered Josh telling him he’d have to settle for “sloppy seconds.” He heard screaming coming from upstairs. He strained to listen intently, only to wince at Janet’s piercing shouts : “Get out! Just go! Go!” He got up and ran into the corridor, to see Josh descending the stairs. Josh was making an effort to walk at a slow, dignified pace, while Janet was trying to shoo him out of her house as quickly as possible. By the time they approached a very confused Grant, Janet was exasperatedly pushing Josh. Grant looked aghast at Josh who shrugged and began to smile wryly, his eyes darting in Janet’s direction. Janet pushed him so hard that he stumbled forward. His pained smile morphed into a hideous grin as he stuck his tongue out, then licked and sniffed his fingers. He began violently and repeatedly penetrating the air with his extended index and middle fingers, like some kind of lecherous piston. Grant struggled to suppress a smirk. Janet’s anger mounted when she saw this gesture, her rage further engulfing her fear; she wanted to hurt Josh in any way she could. Her trembling limbs felt like glass. She wanted to lacerate him. When she noticed Grant grinning stupidly, she shot him a searingly vitriolic look. He attempted to straighten his face, blushing and feeling as though there was no comfortable position in which his gangly limbs could rest. “It’s over!” she screamed, redoubling her efforts to push Josh out. She turned to Grant and in a less harsh tone said that this evening was a terrible idea and should never have happened.

Refusing to pick up his pace, Josh muttered “stupid old cunt”. At this, Janet flew into a blind rage, grabbed an ornamental marble egg from a nearby dusty shelf and threw it at him. It skimmed his head, shattering a china plate hanging on the wall opposite. He continued to amble down the corridor and shouted “You throw like a pussy.” After a moment he added “a wrinkly old gash!” and smirked at his own wit. Grant cringed as he walked quickly in front of Josh, turning around periodically, backtracking and entreating him to hurry up. Gritting her teeth and crying, Janet told herself she wasn’t going to be a victim. Never again! She picked up a tray of ornaments with both hands and, howling between ragged breaths, brought them down on top of Josh’s head. He staggered slightly as Janet steadied herself against the wall. Grant’s eyes were wide with fright: “Allow it! Come on, stop it. Calm down.” “How can you tell me to calm down? He tried to rape me!” rasped Janet. “Oh come on you bitch, you posted on Craigslist that you wanted cock, no questions asked!” Janet looked stunned for a moment, her eye make-up beginning to run. “I… It wouldn’t matter if we were married. No means no! Just fuck off!” she shrieked and pointed in the direction of the front door. “All right you fucking slag!” Josh spat. He had been rubbing the crown of his head and noticed blood on his fingers. He charged into the kitchen and kicked over the dining table, sending china, food and cutlery crashing and clattering to the tiled floor. He turned to Grant, his face contorted with anger. “Dirty slag doesn’t know her place!” Josh stormed out of the house, almost wrenching the door off its hinges and slamming it violently into the wall. Grant, relatively timidly, and with a grim, long-suffering aspect, followed him. As he approached the front door, he looked over his shoulder, to see Janet stooped over the debris from the table, with a large tear up the back of her dress.

‘Lets smash her fucking windows in!’ said Josh while attempting to wrench a decorative ball of concrete from the wall around Janet’s garden. “Come help me, you prick!” Grant stared at him, feeling fatigued and overwhelmed, teetering on the verge of tears. Josh was scowling at him, he had to pull himself together. “Are you a pussy? Come on!” What did any of it matter? Grant’s fragile mood turned black and bitter: his life was a pathetic smear on the cold surface of a meaningless world anyway. He ran at the wall, driving the sole of his trainer into the concrete ball with all of his strength. He was on his back in an instant, slightly winded, and heard the ball hit the pavement. Josh grinned affectionately over him “You sick cunt! This is why you’re my mate.” Grant, helped by Josh, got unsteadily to his feet, only then realising how drunk he was. They peered over the wall to see the concrete sphere lying on the cracked pavement, still attached to the slab from the top of the gatepost. Josh vaulted over and picked up the fallen decoration by both sides of the slab. He carried it into the garden and turned to Grant “Which window should we put it through?” “Well the light’s off in the one on the left; it’ll be more of a surprise.” Grant grinned sardonically. They both took hold of a side of the slab and swung the sphere back and forth two times before letting it fly. It shattered the bottom pane of the window and parted the blinds, revealing a gloom that swallowed the sphere. There was a loud crack followed by a series of thuds as the ornament struck a table and rolled onto the carpet. The blinds fluttered before settling into their usual flatness.

Janet was stooped over a pile of debris with a dustpan and brush. She looked older than before, and wore an expression of frail hope. She tried to hold onto the thought that she could restore a semblance of peace and order to her home. When she heard the clatter and crash from the lounge room, she stood bolt upright. As she did so, she flung the dustpan upward, scattering scraps of food and fragments of china across the room. She was still for some time. She watched, unblinking, as a morsel of lasagne slid down the magnolia wall. When it finally settled on the skirting board, she crumpled and wept. After she had spent some of her pain, she opened her eyes, got up, and walked down the corridor to her living room. She turned on the light and saw the concrete sphere and slab sitting on the carpet near the window. She walked out of the living room and slowly over to the table on which her phone rested. She paused for some time, questioning whether she should call the police, considering that she would have to be truthful about why she let two yobs into her house. Could she bear the shame? Perhaps she could get away with claiming it was unprovoked vandalism.

Grant and Josh strode back down the pavement. Josh was in full swagger and Grant was throwing his long arms out with each step in drunken aggression. They drew a nervous look from a passing woman. They climbed up to the westbound platform and waited in silence. Grant was sullen and Josh simmered with unspent rage. “She wasn’t worth it,” he muttered. They boarded a Stratford-bound train. They sat beside each other and both slouched forward, with their elbows resting on their knees. They both stared silently, Grant at the luridly speckled floor of the carriage and Josh straight ahead. Josh felt he had lost face. He hadn’t controlled the situation. He hadn’t gotten what he wanted. He doubted that Janet would go to the police; “she wouldn’t want to look like a slag.” Grant was already ruminating on what an idiot he’d made of himself and how typical it was that he didn’t even get to touch the woman. He just broke things, that was all he was good for. When they alighted at Stratford, they both walked down the platform, and up some stairs. They parted ways in a brightly lit corridor when they had to go in opposite directions on the central line. Josh growled “Don’t tell anyone about this,” before turning and walking up the stairwell to the eastbound platform.

Grant sat down in a busy carriage. He was surrounded by people and preferred to stare at the floor in front of his feet. Occasionally he’d look up at the warped reflection of his gaunt and miserable shaven-headed face in the streaked window, behind which cables and tunnel walls rushed darkly past. He stopped looking up when he saw what could have been a look of subtle distaste on the face of a well dressed woman across from him. What made it more frustrating, was that he couldn’t tell what she meant by it, if anything. Wondering whether this beautiful stranger really held him in disdain or not, his mood worsened. Could his mere existence in this rumbling, dirty carriage be a cause of contempt? He couldn’t help his existence; he didn’t ask for it. As the train screeched to a halt, he got up and pushed through the tightly packed pass angers to get to an exit. He trudged up the stairs and through the barriers. He walked up a second set of stairs and into the cold. To his left was a broad middle-aged man who had been selling newspapers there for as long as he could remember. “40p Standard!” the man shouted. He turned right after he exited the station. At a nearby bus stop, he saw a crowd of girls he knew through Josh and other friends. Though he avoided looking directly at them, they saw him and all stared. None of them even waved and he couldn’t bring himself to say hi. He felt wretched and hated having to deal with groups of people at the best of times. As he had almost passed them, he was sure they were laughing at him. This stung him immensely. He was frustrated that he knew of no dignified way to react, he just lost his temper and looked even more of a fool. He bared his teeth and started walking more quickly and angrily. He pushed through a group of Bangladeshi boys and heard abuse called after him. “Yeah, jog on you pussy!” He really wanted to turn around and attack the one who shouted, but knew he didn’t stand a chance on his own.

He walked very tensely. He was clearly on edge, but most passers by were used to tension and didn’t look twice. It was not blood flowing through his veins at that moment, but some other volatile chemical. The longer it stayed there, the sicker he felt. He knew the burn of this chemical and how it could only be quickly stopped if it was thrashed out, only if his reeling brain was rattled around in his skull a little, if he smelt blood. “Why didn’t I move to those boys?” It didn’t matter if he got the shit kicked out of him, as long as he left one of them looking recognisably human. He turned into a side street. He could see three boys with two mopeds further down the road. He wasn’t turning back; for one thing, this was his quickest route home. He kept his head up and walked toward them. He was far from calm and doubted he looked it. The boy closest to him was wearing a dark tracksuit and the boy to his right a black raincoat. The boy to the left was the only one without his hood up and Grant didn’t recognise him. As he got closer, he was sure he didn’t know any of these boys. “Rudeboy! Where you from?” the boy in front barked. Grant replied “bow E3, my yard’s just down the road. Where do you live?” – “E9 you cunt! How about you let us into your flat so we can bang your mum?” said the leader. His friends started laughing. Grant felt his chest would explode with rage and terror. He knew where this was going, these Hackney boys had come to this area for a fight. If he hadn’t been so angry, he may have ran. The boys were getting closer. He couldn’t let the distance close.

He threw a quick straight punch at the boy in front. A little bit of boxing was the only useful thing his dad had ever taught him before leaving for good. His first punch hit and took the boy by surprise. His next straight punch missed because the boy had stumbled back. Grant came forward and threw a left hook which just grazed the back of the boys hood, as the boy rushed forward and swung a wild and wide right that flew around the back of Grant’s neck. They were face-to-face and the boy’s right hand was still behind him. The boy ineffectively hit Grant in the back of his head quite a few times. Grant grabbed him, headbutted him and kneed him in the groin. As he buckled forward, Grant grabbed his hood on either side of his jaw, yanked his head down and kneed him hard in the face. He felt the guy’s tooth dig into his kneecap. He was getting ready for a second knee, when he was rocked by a blow to the side of his head. He struggled to keep his footing and turned around. Another blow clipped his nose; he heard a click and could feel and smell his thick, metallic blood in his nostrils. He saw the guy responsible, who had gotten close enough to grab his collar and had his right fist drawn back ready to swing. Grant ducked down and tried to close ground and break out of the grip. The guy holding him kicked him in the centre of his chest. This hurt so much that he lost his temper completely. He charged forward, and in the ensuing scramble, ended up on top of the other guy. Grant held him down with his left hand and struck him with his bloody right fist as many times as he could. The guy on the ground was punching him back, but couldn’t hit as hard. When Grant was winded by a kick in his side, the guy under him wriggled out and crouched beside him, grabbing his head and smashing it into the pavement. After two thundering blows to his forehead, Grant was barely conscious. He was seeing stars. He endured kick after kick to his torso and head. He had wrapped his arm around his face and was waiting for it to end. He was rolled onto his back and he saw the face of the leader, with blood dribbling from his nose and a swollen lip. He roared “You fucking move to me and my boys? Wasteman!”, “I want to stamp on his face” said another. He struggled to cover his face but it was useless. He was just conscious enough to hear a crunch as a trainer came down on his nose for the second time. He didn’t know how many times this happened.

He regained consciousness to hear the boys debating whether to wait until he came to and forcing him to let them into his flat. They might rob his home and maybe brutalise his family. “Nah, allow it,” the leader said. He soon heard mopeds buzzing away down the street. He reached into his pockets to find they were empty. He felt his face and winced. It was sore and swollen, bloody in places. His nose was crooked and especially tender. From experience, he knew it didn’t hurt as much as it would. The numbing effects of adrenaline were still lingering and he was punch-drunk. He dragged his aching body up and stumbled home. He had to buzz his neighbours to let him into the building because there was no response from his flat. He knocked on the door, growing more desperate and wild with each thump of his fist. Eventually he heard his mother slur the words “fuck off, I’m trying to sleep!” – “It’s me, mum, for fuck’s sake!” His mother asked why he didn’t use his keys and he replied that he’d been mugged. “Bloody ‘ell!” she opened the door “Oh my gawd you look ‘orrible” She staggered forward and hugged him. She smelt of alcohol, which was normal for a Friday night. When she smelt the wine on his breath, she asked if he’d been drinking. He looked at her, bitterly, until her face fell in shame. She started sobbing and Grant hugged her again. He shed a few silent tears himself; after such a horrid day, seeing his mother like this pushed him over the edge. Eventually his mother sniffed “I’ve got your soddin’ blood all over me. We should get you to the emergency room!”

The door to the semi-detached suburban house opened in front of Josh. There stood a middle-aged and slightly overweight couple beaming at him. “So, how did the date go?” Josh’s mother asked. “All right” Josh said and managed a smile. Both his parents could tell that he wasn’t pleased. His father slapped him on the shoulder and said “You win some, you lose some! Trial and error, isn’t it?” His mother frowned slightly at this and changed the subject, asking whether he would like to have dinner with them. She said they were just about to eat, but it was so late that Josh suspected that they’d waited especially for him. As he sat down at the table, his mother saw the cut on the top of his head. She asked him how he’d got it. He smiled reassuringly and said someone had tried to mug him. ‘Did they get anything?’ asked his dad “Of course not!” replied Josh in a warm, deep voice. “People should know not to mess with our Josh.” said his father, grinning with pride and obsequiousness. They ate their dinner amid small talk, mainly about what had happened at his dad’s work and on various TV shows. Josh and his father ate and talked with well-rehearsed joviality, while his mother seemed distant. She said very little and gave the other two a number of exasperated and worried looks.

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