Meet Me On The Flipside: Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE

When he was younger, Harley Stevenson would bound out of bed on Christmas morning to see if it had snowed overnight – a white Christmas being the absolute best thing he could think of. And even though he could only remember one time when that happy meteorological coincidence had occurred, he was still lying there now fighting back the urge to leap from his pit and press his nose to the cold window, just in case. But it hardly ever snowed this far south west.

He rolled onto his back, wondering what it was about Christmas that could turn him from sixteen to six overnight.

“Dill? Dill! Wake up, it’s Christmas!” He squinted across the room to his brother, sure that he was pretending to be asleep to annoy him. It was the kind of thing Dylan would do. “Dill, you awake?” He catapulted his pillow across the room.

His brother shifted angrily. “Christ! It’s worse than sharing a room with Blow-Job.”

“Do you think it snowed last night?”

“Yeah. And Santa came down the chimney and emptied his sack in our living room. Sure I think it snowed last night.”

“Are you getting up?”

“No I’m sleeping. Fuck off and annoy someone else.”

Harley reached for his glasses as he got up, peeking his head between the curtains before he pulled a sweatshirt over his pyjamas and hopped downstairs, bare-foot on the cold wooden steps. Replacing the stair carpet was one of many things on the abandoned to-do lists around here, but his mum worked, and his father no longer lived with them, and Len, Mum’s partner, was still not regarded as a permanent enough fixture to go as far as DIY around the house.

One of these years it would snow again, thought Harley, and then it would be a proper Christmas. He seemed to recall having a proper Christmas when he was about five – probably five, because it was before Billie-Jo was born. That year he had woken up and found the world turned white. He, Dylan and Bailey had gone out and played in the snow. Bailey had made a tiny snowman (because there really wasn’t all that much snow) and he and Dylan had thrown snow-and-dirt balls at each other and knocked it down again. Bailey was ten that year.

The TV was on in the living room and Billie-Jo was kneeling on the carpet with the dog, the pair of them surrounded by shredded paper and various presents excitedly pulled from her stocking. Santa always filled a stocking for each of the kids and magically left it by the fireplace for when they came down Christmas morning. She had a reindeer stocking, Harley had a Father Christmas stocking and Dylan had the snowman. Bailey’s stocking, now up in the loft under five years of dust, had been an elf. The presents round the tree were for the afternoon, when everyone else was here, including Dad.

“What did Santa bring you?” Harley reached for the Father Christmas stocking.

“A chocolate orange, a DVD, a sparkly eye-shadow, some hair extensions…”

Harley had already tuned her out as he delved into his own stocking and pulled out a science-fantasy comic, a black plastic bottle of Lynx body spray, a Toblerone…

“Where’s Dylan? Isn’t he coming down?” and then before Harley could answer: “When’s Dad gonna be here?”

“Lunch time. Remember we have to do the vegetables first.”

She should do them. She’s a girl.” Dylan now stood in the doorway, looking blearily, antagonistically, at his sister.

“Why should I do them?”

“I told you, ’cos you’re a girl.” Dylan fell into the room, grabbing his snowman from the hearth.

“So? I’m not doing them. I’m watching telly.” Her indignation was way bigger than her ten years.

“We’ll all do them.” Harley pulled out a pair of socks and a set of Caran D’ache pencils to replace the old stubs he had been left with for the last three months.

You can do them if you like.” Dylan peered into his stocking and extricated a giant tube of Smarties and some wristbands for when he was playing hockey.

Their mother had left clear instructions. By the time she came home she wanted the carrots peeled and the sprouts prepared. Her own mother would do the potatoes and parsnips with the turkey, bringing them over when she and Jamie came round. It had to be a group effort when Julie was working. That just left the gravy and sauces for her to prepare, frozen beans if needed. She might even have time to wash her hair.

She had also instructed the children to clear up and make sure any breakfast dishes were washed and put away. Theirs wasn’t a tidy house at the best of times, and with so many people descending on them this afternoon she needed everyone’s help to get the place looking halfway decent. In the three years she had worked as a healthcare assistant at the hospital in Truro, this was the first Christmas she had been on duty. She was just finishing a twelve hour night-shift now, while the children squabbled over who would do the vegetables.

“What about breakfast?” Billie-Jo demanded.

“What about it?” Dylan threw a handful of Smarties into his mouth, pulled out a new cover for his phone and a woolly hat still with the price-tag on it. Father Christmas was getting sloppy.

“What d’you want?” Harley got up. “Toast? Cheerios? Coco Pops?”

The last thing Harley wanted to eat on Christmas morning was toast or Cheerios or Coco Pops. The last thing Harley wanted to do on Christmas morning was peel carrots but Dylan could moan and complain louder than anyone else, and usually did a half-arsed job of assisting anyway. Billie-Jo would somehow manage to excuse herself because she was the youngest, and the only girl: she always got special treatment because of those two things. That was why she had her own room when both Harley and Dylan would have killed for a bit more privacy. Once upon a time this was a four bedroom house, even if the fourth room was no more than a box-room. But then the box-room got converted into an en-suite shower room so Billie-Jo took Bailey’s old room and Dylan and Harley were condemned to share the largest room forever.

The bathrooms were the only changes to the house that had actually been finished in the last five years. Their mother had insisted on it. She could no longer use the main bathroom after what had happened to Bailey, so their dad had knocked through into the box-room and converted that into an en-suite, then gutted the family bathroom and started again. It was nice and modern now, with beige marble-effect tiles on the wall and a smart bath on the opposite side to where the old one had been, even though that had meant re-routing the pipes across the floor. But it was worth it to make the room different, so that you didn’t open the door and see Bailey lying in the tub like he was, time and time again.

After what happened, Trevor Stevenson had meant to do the rest of the rambling old house too. He had ripped up the carpets on the stairs and the landing in anticipation, stripped away the old wallpaper in Billie-Jo’s new room, but had slowly run out of steam as he and his wife realised that, however much they changed things around, nothing could erase the fact that their eldest son was no longer here. No amount of flat-packed Swedish furniture was going to take that pain away.

Harley shoved some sliced bread into the old toaster, filled the kettle and flicked it on. His mother had laid out the vegetables before she had gone to work last night, just after she gave Len strict orders to put the three stockings down by the fireplace as soon as the last one had trailed off to bed. He had shaken his head as if to say they were too old for this kind of carry-on but had done it anyway. Because it was important to Julie. And Julie was important to him even if her kids weren’t.

This was his third Christmas at the Stevenson place but still it didn’t feel as if he belonged here. He was very much aware of slipping into Trevor’s former life: sleeping on his side of the bed; hanging his clothes in his portion of the wardrobe; sitting in his favourite armchair to watch his TV. Three Christmases and the kids still didn’t buy him a present. Julie always gave him something and claimed it was from them but he knew better.

Dylan was the worst. At just fifteen he already stood a good three inches taller than his older brother, was a stone heavier and a lot more argumentative. Julie let him get away with murder some days. If Len had his way, he would have imposed some order on that kid, one way or another, long before now. Harley was more manageable: placid, shy and malleable. The few times Len had barked at Harley you could see the kid visibly shrink back from further confrontation. And Billie-Jo just didn’t seem to notice him most of the time. She liked her boy bands and glittery things and all that girly kind of stuff which was anathema to Len. To Len’s mind it was wasteful and senseless to have something whose sole function was to be pretty or sparkly or cuddly.

Billie-Jo followed Dylan through to the kitchen. It was a large room with a terracotta tiled floor and a long wooden table in the middle that could comfortably seat eight adults. The toaster popped up and Harley fished the slices out before dropping in four more. Dylan buttered while Billie-Jo fed Corky.

“You think we should take Len a cup of tea?” Harley looked round. “It is Christmas.”

“Fuck him. If he wants something he can come down and get it himself. Like normal.” Dylan reached over for the marmalade. “You want marmalade or peanut butter on this?”

Billie-Jo looked up from the floor where she was messily forking dog food into Corky’s bowl. “Peanut butter.”

“Get the peanut butter out for Blow-Job, will you?”

Harley grinned, leaning in to the cupboard. Billie-Jo frowned, pursing her lips together like her gran did when she was annoyed. They weren’t allowed to call her that. It was one of the few things that got their mother to snap at them. Billie-Jo didn’t exactly know what Blow-Job meant, and when she asked Dylan he’d just done this thing with his mouth and tongue that left her none the wiser. Still, she instinctively didn’t like the nickname.

The three siblings sat at the kitchen table, Corky snuffling out food from his bowl at their feet, tea and toast with peanut butter and marmalade for their Christmas breakfast, cereal for afters if they were still hungry. Harley remembered the proper Christmas before, the one with the snow, with Bailey, when Dad still lived here and Mum didn’t work odd shifts the way she did now. Christmas breakfast then was always a massive fry-up. He pushed those thoughts out of his head because they still made him too sad.

As they were finishing, Len stumbled down the bare stairs behind them and appeared in the doorway, looking accusingly at them all.

“S’pose it would have been too much to ask you all to wait for me?”

“Happy Christmas to you too,” smiled Dylan.

“Santa been then?” Len came into the room and set about making coffee for himself.

“Yeah, some dirty old man broke in last night and emptied his sack in the living room, if that’s what you mean.”

Len eyed Dylan warily. Yeah, if it had been up to him, Dylan would have definitely learned a few manners by now, a few boundaries. But it wasn’t up to him. Julie had made that patently clear. They were her kids; hers and Trevor’s, the same way this was her house, her bed, her unfinished decoration on the walls. Len didn’t feel as if he was allowed any input.

“We know it was you,” Billie-Jo informed him seriously and Dylan cracked up with hysterical laughter that made even Harley smirk.

Len leaned across the table and stole the last of Dylan’s toast from his plate.

“I sneezed on that,” Dylan said as Len swallowed it down.

“Your mum will be back by eleven. She wants all the veg done by then, remember.”

“We’ll do it dreckly,” Harley promised.

In Cornwall ‘dreckly’ could mean now or it could mean next week.

You’ll do it dreckly, you mean,” Dylan sneered.

Harley and he were almost too different to be brothers. Not only was Dylan taller and thicker set, he played hockey and rugby, got into fights and had a girlfriend (kind of, on and off, probably more off than on). Harley was a year older, shunned sports of any description and some of the boys in his class had decided he was gay. He wore glasses and had sticky-up brown hair that he teased with his hands to stand up on end, perhaps to give himself the illusion of extra height. Dylan was blond. His eyes had only just started to weaken but not enough that he had to wear his glasses all the time. Harley could barely find his own dick without his spectacles. In Dylan’s view Harley was a nerd. He liked science-fantasy stories and sketched endless pictures of imaginary women with conical breasts and impossibly long legs into the ragged corners of his notebooks. Dylan was good at drawing too, but he didn’t escape into his pictures the way Harley did.

After breakfast they did rock-paper-scissors to settle who would wash up and who would do the vegetables. Harley won and chose the washing up. Dylan started to hack sullenly at the carrots, which bounced carelessly around the worktop. Billie-Jo took Corky for a walk and when she came back she announced it was her job to make place cards to show everyone where to sit. She used Harley’s new Caran D’ache pencils: a different colour for each person.

“That’s the easy bit,” warned Harley. “Now you’ve got to decide where they all go.”

“I want to sit next to Dad.” She placed her father’s card to the right of her seat, her mother on the left.

“Don’t put Len next to Dad.”

“And don’t put Uncle Ian next to me,” said Dylan.

“He can go next to Harls.” Billie-Jo placed the cards carefully on the opposite side.

“Put Jamie next to me,” Dylan instructed.

“He won’t want to sit next to Ian,” Harley pointed out.

“Then put Ian at the top of the table. Put Jamie next to me and Gran on the other side.” Dylan started to rearrange the name cards but Billie-Jo scooped them all back up, before angrily laying them out again the way she wanted.

Julie had Pirate FM on as she drove back from the hospital, listening to George Michael’s broken heart as he crooned out ‘Last Christmas’ one more time. Being Christmas morning, it didn’t matter that it was a Wednesday – the roads were virtually empty so she was able to put her foot down. Presently she swung left at a desolate crossroads in the middle of an endless expanse of dewy fields. Out here there was just an old-fashioned, rusting signpost calculating the distances to the four nearest villages, and a red public phone-box, its grubby interior dimly illuminated by the dirty yellow light. Before long she had reached the small, Cornish village of Lower Poldeen and rolled easily into the family driveway.

Their house was known as Carnkaie. It was the least well-maintained of all the large houses on Cove Road, this side of Chypons beach. She and her husband had meant to do so much with the old place, but with children, and then, later, with what happened to Bailey, all their plans had fallen away. They had used up every ounce of energy just getting through each day after that. There was nothing left for decorating and extending and all the things which suddenly, brutally, seemed so banal and pointless. After what happened to Bailey, it had taken them a year to break apart: a year of looking accusingly into each other’s eyes, silently blaming each other, when all they could feel was their own guilt and pain. It was too much to bear, too much to speak about, and after a year it simply hurt too much to be around one another.

Trevor moved out to a farm two miles away on the other side of the village, in an isolated area known as Upper Poldeen, along an unlit winding road aptly called Ghost Hill. The owners of the farm had an old motorhome they weren’t using, and he rented this from them for ten pounds a week. It was only supposed to be temporary, while he got himself together, but five years later he was still out there. Most days the darkness and the solitude suited him fine.

It was after what happened to Bailey that Julie retrained as a healthcare assistant. She didn’t have the time or inclination to train as a nurse but her job was satisfying too, and she liked the feeling that she was helping people, making a difference when they needed it most.

“There’s my Boffin!” she squealed as she slipped through the back door and into the warm kitchen.

Harley was stuffing handfuls of torn wrapping paper into the blue recycling bag.

“Don’t call me that!” He grimaced as she kissed the side of his face, giving him a squeeze that left his glasses askew.

“I hope Dylan’s been pulling his weight this morning too.”

“The only thing Dill’s been pulling…”

“Hey!” She kissed him again. “Grandma will be over soon. Let me go and take a shower then I’ll give you boys a hand. Where’s Len?”

“Watching TV with Billie-Jo.”

“I’ll do this.” She pushed the crumpled paper further down into the recycle bag. “It’s fine. You go and join them. Hey, and Boff?” Harley turned round. “Did Santa do okay this year?”

“Santa did great, Mum,” he smiled.