I’m not sure whether my earliest memory really happened or if it was a dream. I remember it as if it were yesterday, but I would have been about three or four years old, so it’s hard to say.
I was sitting at the top of the stairs in our house. It was a big house filled with plants that bowed off the ceiling. Tropical palms and cacti. Orchids and sunflowers. I would run my hands through their giant waxy leaves early in the morning, pretending I was in the jungle, before Mother and Father woke. They didn’t like me touching the plants.
Anyway, back to the stairs. It was night and I sat there shivering, the carpet cold and rough against my skin, the moonlight pouring in through the bay windows and making the plants shine silver. I called out to Mother and Father, but they didn’t answer. I waited, I called again, but I soon fell asleep right there at the top of the stairs. I only awoke as the front door opened and they burst in together, talking loudly at each other and smelling of smoke and burnt caramel. I called out to them again, but they didn’t hear me. I thought they were laughing, but then Father grabbed Mother and knocked her face against the wall until she was quiet. He started to take off his clothes. That’s when I got up and ran to my bedroom. That’s the last I remember. At least that’s what I think I remember.
It wasn’t long after that they got a divorce. They told me that they didn’t love each other anymore and that I would be moving to a new house with Mother.
We took the plants with us to the new house, but they died within the first year. Mother said it was my fault for not looking after them.
She said I was like Father. “You only care about yourself, you selfish little bitch,” she would say.
I didn’t see Father until after I finished primary school. Mother said she needed my help at home, to clean the new house and cook our meals while she went to work. I never knew where she worked, but sometimes she would bring her friends home for dinner. I felt really grown up because she would give me money to go to the shop to buy fags and wine for her and her friends, or beer if it was her male friends. And she’d let me buy sweets with whatever change was left. But I always had to go to bed early when her friends were there.
“Mother needs some private time with her boss now,” she’d say.
Sometimes I’d hear them laughing downstairs. Sometimes they sounded like were fighting, but I wouldn’t dare go back downstairs.
Mother loved me, but she was firm. If I didn’t do what she said, she would hold my head under the cold tap and slap my bottom until they burned. Once I walked into the living room while her and her boss were cuddling on the sofa and she was so angry that she told me to go to my room without dinner. In the morning I got up and only realised when I went to brush my teeth that all my hair was gone. I thought maybe I’d been sleep walking again, but normally I had some kind of memory of my sleep walking adventures, and I couldn’t remember doing this. Even one of my eyebrows had been shaved off, and there’s no way I could have done that without being fully awake.
Anyway, during my first month in comprehensive school, Mother told me that I was old enough to leave the house. “It’s about time your fucking father started paying for you and all,” she said one morning, while chewing on her cigarette and knocking back cold cups of black coffee.
Father’s new girlfriend had just left him, which was “no fucking surprise whatsoever,” according to Mother.
His flat was small but he made up a sofa for me. He seemed happy for me to be there, especially when I made him beans on toast for dinner and went to the shop every night to buy his favourite beer.
“You can have one can a night, but no more!” he’d say, which made me feel grown up.
“You’re a teenager now, a grown woman! You should start enjoying yourself and exploring your mind and body.”
But all I really wanted to do was read my Harry Potter books and learn how to plait my hair, now that it had finally grown back. It wasn’t as light as it had been before, but I liked the streaks of copper that shone through it after washing it.
One Friday, Father came home from the pub earlier than usual.
“I wanted to be with my beautiful girl,” he told me while passing me a big clinking carrier bag.
“Put these in the fridge and open the bottle of white for us.”
I hated wine, but he said it would taste better after two or three glasses, so I drank. He was right. Kind of, anyway. It tasted like water with sugar and salt stirred in, but it made me feel light and stopped me worrying about everything.
I’d sip and think of Mother. I always imagined I’d have lived with her until I was grown up, and I often found myself wondering what I’d done to upset her so much that she would make me live with Father.
There had been so many years that Father hadn’t wanted to see me that I was scared about doing something wrong in the house that would make him angry or change his mind about us living together. I had nowhere else to go.
After the wine, Father opened a bottle of vodka and taught me a drinking game called Roxanne. He played a song from his phone. Every time the singer sang “Roxanne!” we would have to drink a small glass of vodka. And every time the lyrics said “You don’t have to put on the red light!” we would have to kiss each other.
By the end of the song I felt sick and dizzy, but Father kept kissing me, sliding his thick stiff tongue into my mouth and pulling my clothes off while laughing. I laughed at first, too. I was confused and thought it was part of the game. But when I tried to make him stop, he became silent and held me down with his hands, which were sticky from all the vodka he spilled during the game. I don’t like to think about what he did then.
I tried to focus in school, but all I could think about was Mother and why she hadn’t called or wanted to see me. And Father, with his sticky hands and sandpaper face. He made me play Roxanne every night, whether I wanted to or not. He’d hold my throat and chin and hold the bottle in my mouth. I hated the taste of it but I’d choke if I didn’t swallow. It went on like this for the rest of the school year. I failed all my exams, but neither of my parents ever read my reports or went to the parent evenings, so it didn’t matter.
By the time summer arrived, I was buying two bottles of vodka a night. One for Father and another for myself. I still hated it, but if I drank enough I could get to the stage where I wouldn’t be able to feel anything. Not Father’s sticky hands, or his bloated stomach as he lay on top of me. And even better, if I drank enough then I wouldn’t be able to remember what had happened the next morning.
I’d wake up for school feeling dizzy and with a mouth that felt like fur. Panic would set in. Sometimes I would run to the bathroom, nervously expecting to find my hair all chopped off again. And then I’d realise that I still had my hair, but that there were other things missing. I’d never know exactly what he’d taken from me, but I missed them like the beat of my own heart.
Eventually I realised that if I drank more than one bottle of vodka at night, I’d still feel like I was dreaming when I woke up the next morning. As if nothing was real anymore, even when I was awake. Nothing could touch me, no one could hurt me. One morning I realised I hadn’t drank enough, that I could still remember playing Roxanne with Father. Luckily there was still a bottle of red wine in the cupboard, so I drank that with my cornflakes before going to school.
I was failing all of my classes and nobody would talk to me. “She smells like nail polish remover,” the girls in my year would say. “She looks like a ghost,” the boys would say. The teachers said nothing.
In my last year of school I started stocking up on wine without telling Father. He’d give me enough money for our vodka and I’d buy wine with whatever was left, instead of sweets. I’d drink the vodka at night while we played Roxanne and a bottle of white wine with my cornflakes at breakfast. Then I’d pour a bottle of red wine into an empty Ribena bottle to take to school with me and sip on it whenever I started to remember what had happened the night before. By the time Father got home after work, I was desperate for him to give me the money so I could go to the shop and get our vodka, and more wine for the next day.
Eventually I finished school. Or should I say school finished with me. I didn’t get a single qualification and I couldn’t remember any of my teachers’ names. I didn’t miss it. Life was easier without having to hide my Ribena bottle. And it’s not like I had any friends there anyway.
One day, while I was still curled up on the sofa with my cornflakes and bottle of white wine, Father came home early from work. He was crying and smelt like stale curry.
“That’s it,” he groaned, “I told them where to shove it! I lost your mother and I lost my job, but at least I haven’t lost you!”
“But I’ve finished school now, Father,” I whispered. “I will have to leave soon and find a job.”
“No. There’s no way I am losing you too, Roxy. I’ll never let you go.”
I felt my pulse rage through my burning veins. Tears fell like marbles down my cheeks.
“Don’t call me that, Father! My name is Stacy!” I cried. “My name is Stacy!”
“No,” Father said as he kissed a tear from my cheek. “You’ll always be my little Roxy, and I’ll never lose you.”
With that I began to claw at his face with my long dirty fingernails, aiming at his eyes but feeling the flabby skin of his cheeks building up under my nails. “My name is Stacy! My name is Stacy!” I screamed.
He tried to calm me down but only enraged me further. That’s when he pinned my hands together behind my back and grabbed my hair in his fat hairy hands and pushed my face down into the sofa.
“Relax, Roxy. Relax,” he was whispering in my ear.
Struggling for breath and filled with a pounding red rage, I reached desperately for anything I could grab. At first my hand fell upon the remote control for the TV, which I threw aimlessly behind me. But then my hand found its way around the neck of my bottle of wine. Holding it tightly in my hand, I swung it back over my shoulder as hard and fast as I could, readjusting my swing as I felt the glass make contact with flesh, and then bone, and then Father loosening his grip on my hair for long enough that I could spring to my feet. A small cut had opened above his eye and he was lying there motionless on the sofa.
“Stop Roxy, please. I’m sorry. I love you. I’ve just had a bad day, and… Let’s just get our vodka and have a pizza. Please, Roxy, I’m sorry.”
I took two deep breaths and one step closer, towering over him as he cradled his head in his hands.
“My name is Stacy,” I said, before bringing the wine bottle down as hard as I could across the back of his head. So hard that it smashed into a thousand pieces and filled the room with a mist that smelt like ripe stone fruits, fresh grass and almond. Not bad for a £2.99 chardonnay, I thought.
Father lay there motionless and I let the last raging grunts work their way through my body. My heart steadied and my dizzying thoughts resolved to a level of clarity that I had I never felt before.
It was my hands that were sticky now, and I used them to take Father’s wallet from his pocket. I took out all the cash and both of his bank cards, packed my school backpack with a few clothes and my Harry Potter books, and left. I withdrew as much money as I could from the cash point at the end of our street, snapped the cards in half and headed to the train station.
Four hours later I found myself in Paddington Station, London, where I bought two lamb and mint pasties from a stall and sat down on the cold floor to eat them. It was the best meal I’d ever had, the first meal I’d actually enjoyed since leaving Mother’s house.
Mere footsteps from the train station, I found a pub with rooms called The Pride of Paddington. I checked in, had a quick shower and then propped myself up at the bar, where I drank about six pints of Guinness while reading Harry Potter. No one asked me for ID. No one spoke to me. No one seemed to realise or care that I existed. I wasn’t Roxy. I wasn’t Stacy. I wasn’t anybody. I’d never felt happier.
The next morning, as consciousness seeped in, I feared to open my eyes. I remembered the bottle of wine breaking over Father’s head and him lying there motionless. I remembered taking the money and riding the train, the pasties and the Guinness. Please don’t let it be a dream, I thought. Please let this be real.
I opened my eyes and saw the leaking radiator and the broken fan and the nicotine-stained window blinds and the gloomy polluted streets of London outside the window.
I whispered to myself to make it real. “Paradise.” I didn’t need my bottle of white wine to get out of bed that morning.
I stayed at The Pride of Paddington for a month. I never once used the tube or rode a bus, choosing instead to see the sights on foot. I had no phone, and no one to call, and I didn’t know how to use a computer to access the Internet. But I made my own mental maps of the city in my head, plotting routes to and from my lodgings based on my favourite pubs.
One night, at a boozer called The Dickens Tavern, I spotted a sign advertising a job behind the bar. I applied on the spot and worked a trial shift the next evening. I was still technically a year too young to be pouring pints, but I could uncork a wine bottle with my hands tied behind my back and was happy to do as I was told. I started working on the weekends but soon worked my way up to full-time. Now I do about 50 hours a week and love every second.
My colleagues are all university students, not much older than me. They slack off and sneak away to the toilets to use their phones as often as possible.
“This fucking sucks,” they complain when we have to wait for the last customers to leave. “Don’t you want to study something and get a real job?” they ask me.
But I can’t imagine my life being any more perfect than it now is. I lie in in the mornings. I freshen up with a few sneaky pints while I’m opening up the pub and get free steak and ale pies or fish and chips for lunch. If I’m lucky I’ll manage to sneak a few more pints in on my break before the evening shift starts.
Now I’m free. I’m nobody. I wish for nothing. No one controls me or tells me what to do. On my days off I wander along the river in the rain and explore new pubs. I like the old ones with the creaky bar stools and dusty locals.
I drink Guinness, mostly, sometimes beer. Never vodka.
I keep to myself. I hold my own.
On Saturday nights I celebrate my success with Harry and chardonnay, feeling proud of all I’ve achieved.
By Ben Holbrook (October, 2019)