A young girl lives with a drug-addicted parent whom she cannot help, she can only help herself – by staying away

No cornflakes. No milk. You should check the cupboards. You tried to get morning rolls the other day, the Smart Price ones from the big Asda off the main road, but the till worker just stared hard at you and then, ‘That’ll be another pound please’.

‘I don’t have anything else but I can bring it tomorrow. I’ll come down first thing before school‘.
You hated asking people for favours but you were telling the truth, quickly constructing plans in your mind to track down a single gold coin, whilst standing across from ‘Jimmy-Every-little-helps’ in aisle three. You could dig down the back of the sofa in the living room if it came to it, but you really would rather not, repulsed by what would be unearthed between those sagging dead-weight pillows. Or you could ask the girls at school, they wouldn’t even miss the money, but they would want to know why you didn’t have any of your own, and answering that could be costly.

‘No, not possible, I’m afraid. You know how it is, strict management and all that, they’re always watching nowadays’, he replied blankly. His face barely moved. He was not afraid. You were sure he was a robot. Don’t worry about him, some people in this world just look out for themselves.

You notice a packet of dying custard creams behind a bowl, they’ll do. A breakfast program is droning on in the background but you are barely listening, Lorraine Kelly’s chirpy voice battles hard against the grumble of the broken television and dodgy aerial perched high, nested on the faraway cupboard. ‘Do you need a new winter wardrobe, something to warm the heart on those rainy days? Well cast your eyes on this bargain coat from New Look, only £39.99!’ The screen explodes into a frenzy of rainbow colours and then goes all black.

‘For god’s sake’, you hiss, lightly banging the top of the doomed machine stretching on your tiptoes, not wanting to awake whoever was upstairs. Abandoning it, you slip one hand under the navy school jumper hanging lifelessly from the radiator that runs parallel to the chipboarded window. It is damp in some places, around the waist and sleeves, but it is still soaked through at the collar. The heating card must have run out.

You fling the biscuits onto the greying work surface, speckled with brown splodges, and the packet lands between an ash-filled mug with a cracked handle, and an empty can of energy juice, squashed down to half the original size by someone who was then too lazy to throw it out. You stretch your arms into the air. A draft shooting from underneath the gap at the backdoor blasts the nape of your neck and you stiffen suddenly from the sharp impact of the windy gun. Unfreezing, you pull the jumper over your head and splutter into the cheap nylon material as your nostrils choke on the sour stew of smoke, dirt and something more synthetic, burned and charred. You run through the usual scenario to calm down, re-enacting the actions in your mind seamlessly, spraying anything you can find on yourself in the girl’s toilets once at school, masking the odour beneath. That way your friends do not ask any questions. You deserve better than this.

You slump down against the radiator, the main body of which is battered as a result of the many fights the kitchen has endured, and pieces of white ceramic protrude in disjointed angles, like broken bones punching through a skin of thick grime. You bring your knees up to your face and place your chin in the space where your caps meet. You wait. Only thirty minutes and it will be time to leave. Taking out the book, The Great Gatsby from your bag, you slowly prise apart the sticky pages, being careful not to tear the flesh and open at page two hundred. Your mum bought it for your fifteenth birthday, which was two years ago now, but I assume you aren’t expecting anything this year. She said she read it when she was a girl. Get lost into the world of East and West Egg. Imagine you are at one of Gatsby’s parties. Come on, you can do it. It will help. You’re wearing a golden dress that flows behind you and meanders around your high, strapped heels, standing out against Gatsby’s white-marbled floor. Burnt orange specs trickle down the fabric streaming into a wave of translucent glitter. Everyone wants to speak to you, rather than Daisy Buchanan, not just because you are pretty but also because you are smart and kind.

‘You want to be a doctor? But women don’ work!’ they would exclaim, marvelled by your determination.
You suddenly hear footsteps. Someone is coming down the stairs. Please don’t come into the kitchen. Go out the front door. Keep walking past the broken banister and pile of decomposing mail that has been festering for weeks, straight out into the close, and through the main weather-beaten door into the outside world, never coming back. Shit. You hear a foot thud on the cracked floorboard in the hall. The door creaks.

‘Iona, you in here?’ It is your mum.
‘Yeah, I’m still here’. She walks through the door, glances down at you crouched on the ground, and sparks a roll-up cigarette, leaning against the empty fridge.
‘What’s up with your face?’
‘Nothing, I just thought that it was one of your friends coming down. I didn’t know it was you. I’m leaving for school now anyway’.

You get up to leave, pulling your rucksack up beside you, thrusting it in front of your body, as if shielding yourself from the situation.
‘You don’t want to spend time with your old mum? Sorry if we kept you up last night darling. I forgot you had an early start’.

The guilt trick, you know this all too well, and shouldn’t fall for it again. You examine her with your eyes. She seems smaller today, in her stained Primark pyjamas, her own silhouette shrinking beside the door. The skin on her face is yellow and leathery. It milks-in with the citrus-pealing wallpaper she is framed against, as if an artist has created one enormous sickly landscape, with acid erosion seeping from every brush stroke. Her eyes are sunken so far into her skull that the surrounding shadows eclipse them, halving their size into waning crescents. You look away, towards your feet.

‘You all set for school then? What’s on the agenda for today?’ You aren’t sure why she wants to know about your day. Maybe she is looking for this month’s EMA money, but you are positive she has already taken it.

She throws her cigarette roach onto a polystyrene takeaway container beside the fridge. Her eyes stay fixed on the burning tip as it scorches a hole through the white plastic, leaving a blackened mess. You catch sight of her arm for just a second as her sleeve rolls up, before she rips it away and conceals it behind her back, head down and avoiding your glare. Dozens of little holes line themselves along her forearm in perfect precision forming solid tracks. You hear the box still sizzling away on the worktop. You didn’t know it was this bad again. She stands still, cradled over, bracing herself for your shouts and sobs. You don’t say anything. ‘Mum’s ants’ is what you called them when you were younger, imagining the ordered pricks to be tiny super ants trooping across her skin on secret missions and adventures, protecting your mum from all the dangers in the world. It wasn’t until you read Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, hiding in the senior section of the school library when you were fourteen years old that you understood. You haven’t seen the ants in years though. She doesn’t say anything either. The pause is interrupted by a hideous groan, echoing from the master bedroom, through the tenement bricks, resonating in the empty space between you and your mother.

‘Donna, come back to bed now ya sexy wee fuck!’ someone shouts. You bring your hand up to your mouth and cover it as a warm, choking soup rides up your throat and then falls back down, just before it reaches your lips.

‘I’m just coming Iain’.

Your mum doesn’t look at you, but you can see her clearly. You open your mouth and take a deep breath inwards, inhaling stale smoke and fried polystyrene, and then you relax. Your muscles expand. You expect something to follow: an explosion of flames. You want to list every struggle you face because of her. But nothing follows. A cat screeches outside.

And then, ‘I am going to school’. You step by your mum on the right; her dirty hand reaches up and rests on your shoulder, but quickly falls as you stride by.
‘Iona, let’s talk. Don’t do anything stupid’. You want to look back and search her face. Don’t do it. Keep walking.

‘Iona!’

You move past the broken banister and pile of letters and bills, unlatching the front door and throwing it closed behind yourself, leaning against the etched wood. You wait till you hear the click of the lock clamping itself shut. The green-tiled walls of the close surround as you navigate yourself through black bags filled with rubbish and wheelie bins, forgotten by the council long ago. The main door is already open at the end of the corridor, three metres away. Hurry. You cross under the frame and squint as the light beams into your eyes. You stretch down the garden path, out of the hingeless gate and start up the street. A sheet of white covers the grey pavement, and your trainers slide as you walk, but the morning sun still manages to stroke your face through the clouds.

You look up. You smile. Breathe.