Deb stood up, pulling Charlie to her feet as well.
“Di, we just need to pop next door for a few minutes. Could you please wait here? No exploring?”
“Good. Oh, and what were you planning to do this evening? Do you have a cat to feed, anything like that?”
“No. I was just going to go home by way of the supermarket, pick up some drinking chocolate of my own, and slob in front of the telly”
“OK. Wait there, then, I won’t be long”
I spent the time getting my diary up to date, a mind-numbing job indeed, checked my texts, redid my eyeliner, so on, so forth. Nothing very exciting, apart from wondering what I had just admitted to both Charlie and myself.
Deb wasn’t that long, but there was sod-all to interest me in the living room before her return, apart from the complete upheaval of my life.
“Come through, please”
The understairs cupboard was gone, in its place the door that Deb said connected the two formerly separate properties. On the other side was what clearly served as a communal dining room, an impression I gained from seeing a large table with place settings, and seven or eight young people sitting at it. Deb walked to its head, waving me to stand by her.
“Diane, we have just had a house meeting, a short one, on very short notice, as you have bowled us a bit of an off-break---sorry, I used to be a bit of a cricketer. What I mean is that this is all a surprise, but we have rules. Nobody just walks in without agreement from al residents. Think of the room I left you in as a sort of waiting area”
I wasn’t completely surprised, following Deb’s description of the chasers and Charlie’s of her parents, and it made sense.
“I will assume then, seeing as I am standing here, that I got the nod, so thank you all. I am honoured”
Tiff blew a raspberry, and one of the bigger residents giggled. That brought a proclamation from Charlie.
“Yeah, Di, you locked up some of our bestest besties, innit? So yes, you are bound to be welcome. Especially those two coppers, and that little wonky-eyed bastard”
She paused for yet another sniff of contempt, and then Tiff asked a question I couldn’t safely answer.
“What happened to him, anyway?”
I remembered something I had read years before, about lying. If you have to lie, keep it small and close to the truth.
“I have heard rumours, that he gave someone a kicking, and they had a friend who took exception to it”
Yet another snort of contempt from Charlie, as Tiff just shuddered.
“Tiff, someone didn’t take enough exception. Told you we should have put a contract on him”
Deb held her hands up.
“Enough! Yes, Diane. We’ve had a vote, and the girls understand where you’re coming from, and the price you’ve paid, so be welcome. We will be eating in an hour or so, and we would be really happy if you would stay for a meal with us all. We’ve also raised the issue of dealing with our own issues, and, despite Charlie’s suggestion, doing so without any bloodshed. Well, unnecessary bloodshed. So, if you will, be welcome. It’s just a big tray of lasagne, with garlic bread and some mixed salad. Bit better than a mug of hot chocolate by yourself, and as I’m not the cook, it’ll be safe to eat”
They all laughed, Tiff unwinding enough to make a rude comment about the intersection of Yorkshire puddings and Deb’s culinary skills. I laughed, as was expected, and asked who had been the actual cook.
Deb pointed to a girl who must have been over six foot, short dark hair clearly in the early stages of being grown out, wearing a stained T-shirt and a long paisley skirt.
“You can thank Gemma for the food, Di. She was doing a catering course at a sixth form college in Gwent when she decided she had to transition. Don’t mind if I tell her the rest, Gem?”
“Go ahead, Nana. Give her an idea, won’t it?”
“Yes. No doubts on that one. Di, she was living at home, usual family home, finished ordinary school. Always liked helping Mam in the kitchen”
“Yeah, didn’t work out what I was doing till I was about eleven, aye? And then it’s so clear, so obvious. Couldn’t be a girl, could I, so I did what I thought girls did, sort of sneak up on being one for real. Got to like it, so when it’s careers time, and Dad says I need to get a proper job, and he’s got a mate who wants a labourer. I sort of sold him on Gordon Ramsey and that, all the swearing, you know? And I make that mistake, and believe my own bullshit”
The others seemed to know the story, or be waiting for some sort of ritual question and answer, so I played along.
“What do you mean, Gemma?”
“Well, I really thought it would be a course full of… other girls, and I could relax, and we all dream, and mine was of somewhere I could let go of Graham and let them see ME, and of course that didn’t happen. I mean, the course was fine, but there are all sorts of things at a big college, and the lads on them…
“I got tripped a lot, doors slammed on me, that sort of thing, and then some of them must have followed me home, or found someone that knew, and we started getting notes through the door, so I got shown it. Dad just drove me into Cardiff one day, dropped me outside a pub called Smugglers something, said ‘You’ll find your new family in there. Don’t fucking come back’ and drove off”
Deb walked round the table for a hug.
“Found her in a homeless shelter. Lad who runs it knows me, and has an eye for spotting her sort of girl. Got me to her before the predators. Reminds me: you OK for his party? I can run you over in the Tranny van, if you want. Save you struggling”
She smiled, and her face was transformed.
“That would be lovely, Nana! The cake’s small enough to carry, but I’d be wetting myself it would get wrecked on the way. I’m doing the catering, or some of it, for Mervyn’s sixtieth, Diane, saying thank you best way I can”
I looked round the table at all the faces, and realised that they were all the same.
“You’ve ALL been kicked out of your homes?
Charlie gave the answer.
“Yeah, everyone ‘cept Tiff. She ran away. When Daddy dearest realised what she was, he decided he really liked the idea. Then that shit Joe Evans picked her up. That about right, Tiff?”
The other girl nodded, then lifted her gaze from her knees.
“Not tonight, Charlie, please? Let’s see what Di has to say, and anyway, Gem’s done us all a meal I just know will be lovely, so let’s not spoil it. Diane, what’s this man of yours like?”
“Part of the discussion, Diane, and I am sorry if I broke confidence, I explained a little of your story”
“Not a problem, Deb. I am actually beginning to see it as a sort of blessing in a bloody good disguise”
Charlie was straight onto that one.
“You see it as a BLESSING?”
“No, not really, but you work with what you’ve got, and if I can use what Ashley Evans did to me to bury him, then it’s more than fine by me”
Tiff smiled, and asked again.
“So what’s he like, Diane?”
“He’s called Blake. He is a Detective Constable, just like me, and he is a very big man, and very fit. He is also very, very gentle when he needs to be”
Tiff smiled once more, and I could see what the chasers must have seen in her, and I understood who one of them must have been. Gemma and a couple of the others began serving the meal, and it was indeed very tasty. If she baked as well as she cooked, then I could see a very lucrative life ahead of her. In deference to the earlier request, the conversation was steered away from the less pleasant stuff and instead ranged over celebrity gossip, soap stars’ beach bodies (of both sexes), chart music, and, just when I was losing the will to live, rugby. It was like being back in Saffron’s bedroom, at fifteen or sixteen, before that man had wrecked everything.
“No football supporters here?”
All eyes in the room locked on me, as Charlie (who else?) muttered “Bloody stupid game!” before putting down her fork for a lecture on the sort of people involved in each pastime.
“What it is, Di, is that football attracts all the twats on testosterone, all the ones with no brains. They all think with their cocks, and they’d rather fight than play. You can see it in the interviews. ‘Yeah, John, I was sick as a parrot, game of two ‘arves, boys is done well good’, drivel like that. The boys love that shit. Rugby, though, players have got brains, can explain things. And they’ve got Georgie as well”
Everyone turned and grinned at Gemma, who was blushing bright pink, especially when Charlie pretended to swoon like some Victorian maiden.
“Oh, Georgie? Take me! I am yours to do with as you wishest!”
She sat back up, the grin turned my way.
“Gemma has a thing about George North. Think it’s his size. I prefer to take my beef by the mouthful rather than the whole bull at once”
Gemma threw a piece of bread at her, laughing.
“You are just so shameless, Charlotte!”
Real happiness, just then, shone from their faces, and I understood what Deb was getting from her work with her charges, just as Tiff finally asked her question.
“So, Diane? When was it you realised you were in love with Blake?”
I found myself laughing, the answer obvious
“As soon as Charlie asked me, that’s when!”
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