I am here in Grannie’s wardrobe, which smells of Grannie, her perfume and her preferred washing powder, and her folds and her wrinkles. Her jumpers, her skirts; it smells of Grannie.
Marisa is well. She was sad to lose the baby, having carried it in her womb for three months, but she was so relieved she cried when I visited. She hadn’t even told Dominick Senior yet. She said she couldn’t face it, not when he was working so hard.
And here comes the worst part. I am so shocked that I can scarcely write it. Maybe I shan’t. Maybe I can’t write it. Maybe it pains me too much. But I know a family who it pains more.
So I visited them again in Cotton Way this evening, as I said. It’s such a dingy place, and I always imagine the cotton mill when I walk through. And the poor boys and girls working all day in the stuffy dangerous cotton mill and in the mines below the city. And the crowded Victorian houses full of tiny children caring for their yet tinier siblings. I always imagine the past. But that is worse, because suddenly it seems that the past is still here in the present, and what a horrible past it has come to be in my mind. The past was once dream and romance and mist. And now it’s poverty and heartbreak. That’s what’s cracking my soul from the inside.
I opened the door of the redbrick house to the sound of crying somewhere through the floorboards. Liljana, I thought, and it was all I could do to stop myself from slamming the door and running down the stairs.
Something stopped me.
The shouting. I eased the door closed and knelt on the floor, lowering my head in the dust. The smell of old wood rose up my nostrils, calming my heavy breathing as I peered into the room below.
I saw three shadows dancing on the wall in the yellow light of the weak gas lamp. Two shadows were two of the children. I thought one was Dominick, standing straight and fearless, protecting Liljana, who cowered behind him. I could picture his blazing grey eyes as he took the gallant stance in protection of his sister.
The third shadow was a thin man, perhaps distorted by the light, and he was shouting. Shouting terrible words that scalded my ears. He was moving a lot, but his gestures were strange and slurred.
And then he raised his arm.
He hit Dominick. Hit him. Hit my friend Dominick, who isn't quite thirteen yet. I couldn’t think what maniac had found his way into my friends’ home. And I remembered what Dominick had said. ‘You shouldn’t be wandering alone round here’. I felt the truth. The door didn’t even have a lock. It was so easy to get it. I felt terror for this man who came in here and hit Dominick, so small and valiant in the poor light.
I heard a scream. I sat back in the dark hallway. Then leaned forward again. Had Dominick screamed?
No; it had been me.
Footsteps sounded, quickly on the wooden staircase. I sat back again in the dust and the shadows. The form of a boy made itself clear emerging from the basement room. My heart rose in my mouth, making me gag. I couldn’t swallow. Dominick?
It was Aleksandar. He had a haunted look in his eyes and his freckles seemed more pronounced in his white face. At the top of the stairs he glanced over his shoulder as if he were afraid of being followed. Then he strode into the lobby, wary. Paused, his eyes passed over the spot where I crouched in the darkness. His eyes widened in shock or fear but he didn’t stop. He ran out, leaving the door open, the now-cold air blowing down my neck and chilling my bones to quaking shivers.
I breathed quickly. More footsteps on the wooden staircase. This time they were heavy and uneven. They could not be the quick light step of Dominick.
I froze as the thin man came up. He staggered through the hallway to the door, and I saw that a curly beard was forming at his chin. And then he, as Aleksandar had done, hesitated, and slowly traced his head in my direction.
I stopped breathing, overcome with fear. The glassy drunken eyes of Dominick’s dad looked straight through me.
The terrible truth drowned me of air and left me gasping. Dominick Senior had hit his son.
I didn’t come back to myself until the door banged shut in the wind, disturbing the layers of dust which reeked of age and sorrows.
I stumbled down the wooden staircase and into the basement room.
The two children were kneeling in the middle of the room, Liljana whimpering into Dominick’s chest. He looked up as I appeared in the doorway, but I could feel the sobs rising in my own throat and knelt down next to him, wrapping my own arms around Liljana and holding her tightly.
I flinched as I felt a hand on my own shoulder, but relaxed as I realised that it was Dominick’s arm, supporting me. I gratefully sank down into the floor and bowed my head over Liljana’s, burying the small sobs that escaped me in her soft hair.
I tried not to cry. But it was not just having seen Dominick’s father hit him. It was not just their poverty and failure to work together in their struggles. It was my problems as well, and my loneliness, and the latest guilt-inspiring argument with Dianna, and my parents, and Grannie’s death. All those uncried tears bubbling to the surface.
The last thing I remember before coming here to Grannie’s wardrobe is feeling a hot droplet fall on my neck and running down my spine, as the three of us crouched in the basement room. And I realised that Dominick, brave Dominick, was weeping onto my shoulder.