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Angels and Devils
by Duncan Johnson
It is still light outside when Tori closes the floral-patterned curtains in her bedroom. She has left the window open and a breeze tugs at the thin material. One edge of the fabric becomes caught on the spines of the cactus on the windowsill. Tori makes no effort to extricate it. She can hear ambulance sirens echoing from ground level.
She closes the door. It has no lock so she drags the bed across the room to block the entrance. In her imagination this had been a much easier task, but she grits her teeth and inches the furniture around a little at a time until she is satisfied with the result. She plops herself down on the duvet while she recovers her breath.
There is a mirror on the wall opposite and Tori studies the girl staring back at her. Victoria Gallagher, known as Tori. It had been Scott's fault, of course. At two years old, he had been unable to work his mouth round all four syllables of the name their parents had chosen for her, only managing to bark out 'Toria', followed by a giggle. The name stuck and no one has called her Victoria since the age of six months, with the exception of some of her more malicious teachers.
Nobody calls her Toria either, if she can help it. She hates the name. It makes her think of a little girl in plaits and a pink party frock with chunky braces fitted over her buckteeth being paraded by her mum in front of the other residents of the block. She has grown up since then and Toria is long gone. Today she is Tori, but tomorrow even that will be gone.
The eyes looking back at her from the mirror are bloodshot, puffy and red from crying. Her pale skin absorbs the light reflected from the walls making her look jaundiced. Her long blonde hair is pulled savagely away from her face and held in place by an elastic band. The creature in the mirror is a pitiful sight.
Tori turns her attention to her bedside table. Shifting her copy of Sylvia Plath, the one with the ring left by her coffee mug on the cover, she uncaps the brown medicine bottle and pours out its contents. Patiently, she orders the white pills into the rank and file of a miniature army. She can't remember when her mum started using the sleeping pills. Was it after Timmy was born or did she wait until Dad walked out on them? Tori doubts that the pills do her any good though. Mum still cries herself to sleep most nights.
Tori pops the first pill into her mouth, washing it down with a sip of tepid water.
* * *
'Janine, will you shut the brat up!'
Tori sat at the kitchen table and tried to block out the noise. Her homework was strewn out in front of her, but her workings had degenerated into doodles as it became increasingly difficult to concentrate. Timmy had woken up hungry again and had no qualms about letting the rest of the building know about it. Mum had raced out of the kitchen to quiet him and now tea was threatening to boil over. With a sigh that was perhaps a bit more melodramatic than it needed to be, Tori got to her feet and turned down the flame on the stove. Dad would not lift a finger to help, engrossed as he was in whatever quiz show was blaring at him from the TV. His only contribution these days was to shout orders at the rest of them. And Mum always rushed to obey.
Tori had promised herself that she was not going to turn out like her. She was going to get out of here and make something of her life. She was not going to let herself be used.
She climbed back on to her chair and returned her attention to the textbook. She was smart. Once she passed her CSEs she would go to college. Then she could go places, rather than scrounging off the dole. Assuming she could ever finish this exercise.
Homework was not exactly encouraged in the Gallagher household, presumably because Scott, two years her senior, had never felt the need to do any. Now he spent his days like Dad, though instead of lounging in front of the television, he lounged on street corners with his mates, getting drunk and wolf whistling at anything in a skirt. Unemployed and unemployable.
Tori could hear her mum cooing softly to the baby, but Timmy was paying no attention, intent on demonstrating just how powerful his little lungs were. In response, Dad turned up the volume on the television and the flat echoed with the applause of a studio audience. Miss Beckett, who lived in the flat above, began hammering on the ceiling with her walking stick.
Tori clamped her hands over her ears and shook her head, her long hair flying about her.
'Shut up,' she moaned. 'Shut up, shut up. SHUT UP!'
'Quiet,' her dad bellowed at her. 'I'm trying to watch this.'
'And I'm trying to work,' Tori snapped back.
'Ha!' Dad laughed at her. 'Reading books when you could be doing something useful.'
'Like you, you mean?' Tori had spoken without thinking. She wished that she could take the words back, but she was too upset to apologise. Besides, why should she apologise for speaking the truth?
Her dad got to his feet, struggling to lift himself up off of the sofa.
'Who do you think does all the real work around here?' he growled. 'Who do you think pays to keep you here while you swan around with your bloody books and your bloody poetry? Me, that's who!'
Tori was angry now. She knew she should keep her mouth shut, keep her thoughts to herself, but all she wanted to do was lash out.
'Yeah, it takes a real man to collect the dole money once a week!'
Her dad raised his hand to strike her.
Janine was standing in the doorway, the baby cradled in her arms.
'Dave, she didn't mean it.'
'Stay out of this, woman!' Dave did not even turn his head to look at her.
'You think you're so much better than us, don't you?' he said to Tori. 'You think all of this means you're smarter than us, but you're not. You're just the same as the rest of us.'
'I'm nothing like you,' Tori retorted. 'I'm going to make something of my life, not hide in front of a TV all day.'
Her head snapped back in reaction to the blow and she toppled backwards off her chair, catching her temple on the edge of the sink. She put a hand to her head and found blood.
'Go to your room,' her dad ordered.
Gingerly, Tori got to her feet and began to gather up her books.
'Leave it,' her dad snapped.
Tori ignored him.
'I said leave it!' Dave snatched up her homework and tore it in two. 'Now get out of my sight!'
Tori fled from the kitchen, lower lip trembling. It was not until she had shut herself in her bedroom that she allowed herself to cry.
* * *
A pigeon lands outside her window and begins to coo softly. Tori considers getting up and shooing it away, but she cannot summon the energy. She feels as if she is falling, but slowly, like a feather caught in the breeze. She snuggles deeper into the comforting softness of the duvet.
Reluctantly, she turns her head to one side and opens an eye. Her army stands firm, but its ranks have been decimated by the enemy. The table seems much farther away than she remembers, but somehow Tori manages to snake out and arm and snag another pill. Popping it into her mouth, she rolls over and returns to her daydream.
She can hear the pigeon flapping its wings, as if to check that they are still attached. Then it takes flight.
* * *
The bird landed on the branches of the cherry tree that hung over the entrance to St Stephen's church. Tori had been watching its flight as it had swooped and soared, torn between climbing out of site and coming to rest. The activity had helped her to block out Mrs Beckett's none-too-quiet 'whispering'.
'It's not right,' she was saying to the women who crowded round her like bumblebees about a flower. Or flies round rotting meat, Tori thought, then chided herself for the comment. It was not that Mrs Beckett did not deserve it, but Tori refused to start sniping at people behind their backs. It was not right.
'It's not right,' Mrs Beckett repeated, 'what with three kids and all. How can they be expected to grow up into responsible adults without a father? Children need discipline and she's certainly not going to give it to them. You mark my words.'
The object of Mrs Beckett's tirade was oblivious. Janine Gallagher was kneeling at the riverbank, one arm around Timmy as she showed him the ducks. That had been his first word. Not 'Mum' or 'Dad' or even 'Tori', but 'duck'. Tori had been in her room. She was lying on the bed on her stomach, with a book open in front of her, but she was not reading. Instead, she was dreaming about all of the places that she would visit when she graduated. Her mother's voice cut through the dream.
'Tori, Tori, come quick!'
With a sigh of protest, Tori rolled of the bed and stuck her head around the bedroom door. Her mum looked back at her from the bathroom, eyes shining like they had not in months.
'Quickly,' she called. 'It's Timmy.'
Tori briefly considered turning round and returning to her 'reading', but she liked her baby brother, though heaven alone knew why.
Timmy was sitting in the bath. It was only filled with enough water to reach just above his waist and its emptiness only emphasised how small Timmy was. Mum knelt by the side of the bath, a yellow plastic bath toy in her hand.
'Watch this,' she said to Tori, then she turned to Timmy. 'Timmy, tell Mummy what this is.'
'Timmy raised a chubby hand to point at the toy.
'Duck!' he said firmly.
Mum turned to Tori and she could see tears in her eyes. Tori could not help grinning back.
'He's talking,' Mum sobbed. Well, maybe that was a bit strong, but Tori could feel her grin stretching wider. The two women reached for each other and embraced tightly.
'Duck, duck, duck, duck, duck,' Timmy crowed.
Tori released her mum and scooped the baby out of the bathtub. Then she engulfed him in a hug, not caring that her clothes were getting soaked.
It had been a magical moment. At least until Dad had come home.
Tori felt a hand on her shoulder and tore herself back to the present. She whirled to find the vicar standing behind her. He had swapped his robes for a faded duffel coat and a Newcastle United scarf.
'It's gone, you know,' he said. When Tori looked baffled he pointed to the cherry tree. The bird must have flown away while she was daydreaming.
'Penny for them?' the vicar persisted. He was Tori's height and had a bald patch that made him look a bit like a monk.
Tori's gaze wandered back to Mrs Beckett and her congregation.
'I mean, what sort of person is she, do you think?' Mrs Beckett was saying. 'She didn't have the perfect life, I'd be the first to admit, but she had a family, a loving husband. What sort of person just throws that away?'
Tori's hand went to her temple. There was no scar, not any more, but sometimes it felt as if there was.
'Don't listen to them,' the vicar said. 'Mrs Beckett, good person though she is, does have an unfortunate habit of mouthing off about things she knows nothing about.'
'I know that,' Tori mumbled.
'Still hurts, though, doesn't it?'
* * *
Tori opens her eyes a fraction. The sun is setting and colour is seeping from her room. Somewhere outside a car stereo is blaring. The beat pounds away like a throbbing heart. Tori lets the pulse flow through her. She lifts her hands to check her own heart beat and is surprised to see red crescents in her palms where she has been digging in her nails. Bad memories, she suspects.
She turns her head to survey her soldiers. Her little army is in disarray. Decimated by casualties, the ordered rank and file is no more, leaving only scattered clumps, cowering from the enemy. Her glass of water is half-empty when she takes a sip to wash down another tablet.
* * *
'Tori, could I have a word please.'
Miss Townsend took a sip of water before setting down her glass on the corner of the desk. Nervously, Tori detached herself from the crowd of teenagers forcing their way out of the door. She liked Miss Townsend, but her previous experiences of being asked to stay after class had always meant trouble.
'Don't worry, you're not in trouble or anything,' Miss Townsend said, as if reading Tori's thoughts. She was perched on the edge of her desk, her reading glasses held casually in her left hand. 'I just thought you might want some help.'
'Help?' Tori shuffled uncomfortably. 'I'm getting good marks, aren't I?'
Miss Townsend looked as if she wanted to laugh, but settled instead for a slight smile.
'I'm sorry, Tori, I didn't mean to scare you,' she said. 'Yes, you are getting good marks. Better than good. I was just wondering if you'd considered English Literature as a college course?'
'College course?' Tori repeated. Her brain seemed to be having difficulty getting going.
Now it was Miss Townsend's turn to look uncomfortable.
'You do enjoy English Lit., don't you?' she asked. 'You've never said, but you always seem interested in class.'
'Yes, yes, I do,' Tori admitted. It was her favourite course. 'It's just college? Do you really think I've got a chance?'
'You'll have to work for it, but I think you're in with a shot,' Miss Townsend confirmed. 'I was thinking we might get together for some extra tuition after school.'
Tori looked at her feet. 'I can't. I have to help out my mum at home.'
'Don't worry about it,' Miss Townsend said. Fortunately, she was aware of Tori's circumstances so she could spare her further embarrassment. 'We'll just have to adapt.'
The teacher slipped her glasses back on and fished a piece of paper from her pocket.
'I've put together a reading list that I think might be helpful. And, best of all, the school library actually has copies of them.'
Tori smiled. The school library was not up to much, but it was still better than the trek across town to the public building.
'If you've got any questions you know where to find me,' Miss Townsend continued.
'Thank you,' Tori said, holding the list as if she expected it to vanish into the ether at any moment. 'Thank you very much.'
'Don't thank me yet. If we're going to get you into college it's going to mean a lot of hard work on your part. Don't let me down.'
'I won't. I promise.'
An awkward silence descended on the room.
'Well?' Miss Townsend prompted at last. 'What are you waiting for? Go get those books before someone else does.'
Tori hurried out of the classroom.
The library, little more than an oversized book closet, was located on the ground floor, two flights down from Miss Townsend's classroom. Tori decided to go straight there and go to lunch later. She had brought sandwiches, rather than risk whatever the canteen was serving today so she would not have to queue. She reached the library just in time to see Mr Lucas emerge.
Mr Lucas was her Maths teacher and probably her least favourite member of staff. She knew that Maths was her weakest subject (an award for which there was stiff competition), but Mr Lucas seemed to take sadistic delight in highlighting this fact to the rest of the class. It had started last year, on a Tuesday afternoon when she had been playing hockey. Tori enjoyed hockey and she was not a bad striker, which earned her a measure of popularity she did not usually get in class. Mr Lucas had been refereeing and after the game, he asked her if she was interested in joining the school team. Initially, Tori had agreed, but then she discovered that the team trained after school. Since Dad had left, Tori had always gone straight home after class in order to look after Timmy and give her mum a bit of a break. So she had apologised to Mr Lucas and explained that she would not be able to play for the team after all. Unfortunately, Lucas did not like people turning him down and he was the kind of man to hold a grudge.
Tori considered racing back up the stairs, but Lucas had already spotted her. He stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned against the doorjamb, blocking her entrance to the library.
'Miss Gallagher, I'm surprised to see you here,' he said. 'It's rare enough for any student to visit the library, but especially you '
'Miss Townsend sent me, sir,' Tori explained. 'She's given me a list of books to read.'
'Extracurricular activities?' Mr Lucas commented. 'Don't you think it would be better to concentrate on the work expected of you before moving on to anything extra? You won't get into college on the strength of one subject alone, you know, which means, unless there's a miraculous transformation in your conduct here, I don't see you getting into college at all.'
With that parting shot, Lucas strode past Tori and up the stairs.
* * *
Tori hears the sound of keys in the door.
'Tori, we're home,' calls her mum. She has been at the doctor's. Timmy has a bit of a cough. It is probably nothing, but Mum did not want to take any chances.
The door slams.
'Tori, are you here?'
Tori says nothing.
She reaches for her glass. Fumbling it, she knocks it against the edge of the table. Rescuing it, she freezes, her breathing sounding impossibly loud, her heart hammering in her chest. She waits, listening for her mum's knock at her door. But her mum has not heard her. She is safe.
She reaches for a tablet, her hand scrabbling across the table's surface until she finds one up against the base of her lamp.
She swallows the pill and tries to think calm thoughts. Her heart continues to race.
* * *
Tori paced up and down in front of Miss Townsend's desk, her heart racing, her thoughts a jumble.
'Tori, please, you're wearing a hole in the carpet.'
Tori spun on her heel and stopped.
'Sorry,' she muttered. 'It's just, I can't think straight. What am I going to do?'
Miss Townsend put a comforting arm around the girl.
'Calm down, Tori,' she soothed. 'It's not the end of the world.'
'Isn't it?' Tori demanded, shaking off the teacher's arm. 'I've been rejected by everywhere I applied. Nobody wants me and if I can't get out of here I'll I'll '
Tears cut off the end of her sentence.
'Shh, it's all right,' Miss Townsend whispers. 'Everything's going to be okay. So the colleges rejected you. They don't even know you. All they've got to go on is the school's prediction of what you'll be like. And, let's be honest, you haven't exactly impressed up until now. But we've still got a shot. Once you get your results we can show them off, not some out-of-date school report. Then they'll have to accept you.'
Tori sniffed and Miss Townsend offered her a tissue.
Tori felt a lot happier when she emerged from school ten minutes later. She still had a lot of work to do if she was going to bring her grades up in time, but at least she felt the goal was achievable. She was going to college.
It was a long walk home, but Tori did not like to waste money on the bus. Besides, the walk gave her plenty of time to think things over. A swan hissed at her. It was blocking the towpath in front of her. Tori had been menaced by a swan as a little girl, so she decided that, rather than try to force her way past, she would sit on the canal bank until the swan got bored and went away.
It might be worth asking some of the other teachers for extra help with her subjects. Okay, so they were not all Miss Townsends, but nor were they as bad as Mr Lucas. Perhaps she should focus on improving a few subjects rather than spread herself too thinly by trying to up all her marks.
There was a splash as the swan tumbled gracelessly into the water and Tori got to her feet and resumed her march. There was an uneven flight of stone steps at the side of a red brick bridge that led back onto the main road. She could see the cream-coloured twin tower blocks that housed her flat in the distance while she waited for the traffic lights to change. She could save time by cutting through the kid's play area.
Scott was sitting on the wall at the edge of the field, his back to the swings. He was smoking and drinking with his friends, a bunch of guys with barely a brain cell to share between them. Tori did not have a lot of time for them, but she did not see how she could walk past without at least acknowledging her brother's presence.
'It's Victoria, isn't it?'
She turned to see one of the guys walking towards her. He wore a leather jacket over a white T-shirt.
'Tori,' she corrected automatically.
'Tori, right,' the guy agreed. 'Scott's sister. I'm Aaron.'
'Um, Hi,' Tori stammered. Up close, Aaron was pretty good-looking, in a ruggedly handsome kind of way.
'Hi,' Aaron responded. He smiled at Tori and she felt her knees turn to water.
'Do you need a hand with that?' Aaron asked, indicating her bag.
'No, I'm fine. Really,' Tori said, nervously adjusting the strap on her shoulder.
'Well, if you're sure,' Aaron conceded. 'Looks pretty heavy to me though. Guess you've got all your books in there.'
'My books?' Tori prompted.
'Scott's told us you're a bit of a bookworm,' Aaron admitted.
Tori looked down at her shoes. Bookworm, great. Nice to know what he thinks of me.
'Of course, he didn't tell us you were a looker, too,' Aaron continued.
Tori felt her face grow hot and was glad she was not looking at him.
'Thanks,' she muttered feebly.
'Listen, the guys and I are going into town tonight and I was wondering,' Aaron said, 'well, I thought you might like to come too.'
Tori's heart leapt straight for her throat. Was he really asking her out? Really?
'I, uh, I can't,' she confessed. She waved in the direction of her flat. 'I've got to, well, you know.'
Stupid, stupid, Tori! She mentally kicked herself. Very hard.
'Sure, I understand,' Aaron said. 'Some other time then.'
'I'd like that,' Tori replied.
'See you around then, Tori.' Aaron turned and walked back to his friends.
Tori waved at his back. The guys were laughing at some kind of joke. Tori guessed it was about Scott since he looked distinctly uncomfortable.
With a ridiculous grin splitting her face, Tori turned and continued on her way home.
* * *
Mum has fed Timmy and is now watching her soaps on the TV. Tori does not watch much television. When Dad was around, she got used to spending time hiding in her room with a book. Sometimes she wonders if she should have shown some kind of interest, if only in the interests of mother-daughter bonding, but nothing on television can hold her attention these days.
There is a small pile of dog-eared library books at the foot of her bed. She wonders whether anyone will bother returning them for her or if they will be left to accumulate an ever increasing fine. She tries to recall the books' titles, but can only remember three of the four. She cannot summon the energy, however, to sit up and take a look.
Her hand scuttles crab-like across the bedside table searching for another tablet, but to no avail. Her soldiers have all been defeated.
Closing her eyes, Tori settles back and prepares to sleep.
* * *
Tori opened her eyes again, but the words on the paper were still the same. She had failed. Despite all her efforts, her grades had not improved anything like enough. Even her English Lit. mark was not as high as she had hoped.
Now what was she supposed to do? All her dreams, all her careful planning, all for nothing. She had wanted to get out, to escape her life before she became trapped like her mum. Now what did she have to look forward to?
She looked around for Miss Townsend. She had promised to be here when Tori got her results. She would know what to do. But she was not here.
Tori felt so small, swamped by a hostile and uncaring world. She wanted someone to hold her hand and tell her everything was okay, but everyone had abandoned her.
She looked up to see Mr Lucas towering over her.
'Good news, I hope?' he said.
It was all too much. Tori turned and ran from the school, eyes stinging with unshed tears.
She had managed to compose herself slightly by the time she reached the bridge. She wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. Her vision was still blurred, but she could make out the number 37 on the plaque over the bridge.
She collapsed in a heap on the bottom step. She did not have the energy to carry on. She could see the corner of a shopping trolley poking out from beneath the canal's dark waters. She wondered who had abandoned it there, how long had it been left to rot? If she never stirred would anyone come looking for her? But she could not stay there, not forever, so she eventually forced herself back to her feet and continued towards home.
The play area was deserted, except for a little, ginger-haired boy on the swing. He smiled at Tori and she found herself quickening her pace, almost running across the grass until she reached the alleyway between the two blocks of flats. The alley was in shadow, the graffiti on the walls drained of its vibrancy.
Somebody struck a match.
Tori's eyes immediately focussed on the patch of light. Aaron lit his cigarette and tossed the spent match to the ground. Scott and the others lurked in the darkness behind him. They were between her and home.
''Scuse me,' Tori muttered, trying to force her way past.
Aaron's free hand clamped down on her shoulder.
'Hey, babe, what's the rush?' he asked. Tori recoiled from the cigarette smoke on his breath. 'The guys and I were wondering if you might be up for a little fun.'
'Um, not now, um, Aaron, I'm not in the mood,' Tori replied, trying unsuccessfully to shake him free. 'Maybe later, okay.'
'Why put off till later what we can do right now?' Aaron's cigarette was dangerously close to Tori's left eye. His other hand moved from her shoulder to caress her cheek. 'And I am in the mood.'
He crushed his lips on to hers. His stubble scraped across her face like sandpaper. Tori could feel his tongue invading her mouth. She pushed him away with as much force as she could.
'Get off of me,' she screamed. 'What do you think you're doing?'
'Having a little fun, babe,' Aaron responded, swaggering back towards her. 'Weren't you having fun? What's the matter? Aren't we good enough for you.'
Aaron hurled his cigarette to the ground and stamped on it.
'I just want to go home,' Tori said, trying to keep her voice reasonable. 'Scott, tell him.'
Scott turned his face away.
'Scotty'll get his turn soon enough,' Aaron commented. Up close, Tori could see that his eyes were wide and bloodshot, his pupils the merest of pinpricks. 'But I want a piece of you first.'
Aaron shoved her up against the wall. She could feel the cold stone through the thin material of her school blouse.
'Help!' she shouted. 'Scott! Anybody! Help!'
There was a knife in Aaron's right hand. In the shaded alley it looked dull and unthreatening, but Tori could testify to it's sharpness when Aaron pressed it to the skin of her throat.'
'I think we'll both have more fun if you just SHUT UP!!' Aaron snapped. He was breathing heavily and took a moment to calm himself down. 'Now, where were we?'
Tori closed her eyes, as if not being able to see it meant that it was not happening. She could feel his lips on hers, his wet tongue forcing itself between her lips like an eel. She could feel his hand beneath her blouse, feel his coarse fingertips upon her breast.
'I think the young lady would like you to stop.'
The voice was soft, but it soared over any other noise in the vicinity.
'I suggest you let her go.'
'Why, what are you gonna to do about it?' Aaron asked defiantly, but he did take a step away from her. Tori pressed herself against the wall, hoping that it would open up and swallow her.
Two figures stood framed by the light at the far end of the alley, a man and a woman, looking like something from a nineteenth century novel. The man strode confidently forward, his dark coat trailing behind him.
'Why don't you give me the knife,' he was saying, 'then no one need get hurt.'
'Oh, I'll give it to you all right,' Aaron promised, before darting forward and thrusting the blade beneath the man's ribcage and up into his heart.
Mouth open in surprise, he collapsed to the ground, blood darkening his shirt.
The woman ran forward, hindered by her long skirt. Ignoring Aaron, still holding the bloody knife, she fell to her knees, cradling the man's head in her lap.
'Doctor,' she moaned. 'Doctor, say something please.'
'Aaron,' Scott said, 'you've killed him.'
The other boys started to pick up the cry.
'We've got to get out of here,' one of them said and they turned and fled.
'Somebody help him,' the woman cried.
Aaron stood as a statue, staring at the corpse on the ground.
Scott paused at the end of the alley, 'Aaron, come on.'
Suddenly spurred to life, Aaron dropped the knife, turned and legged it.
Tori eased away from the wall.
The woman turned to her, dark eyes boring into hers.
'Please, go and fetch some help. Hurry!'
Tori turned and fled up the stairs to her flat.
* * *
And now Tori lies above the duvet of her bed, eyes closed, breathing so slow as to be barely noticeable. Her last thought, that maybe now the pain will all go away.
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