Prison wasn’t a holiday. For some blokes it was the best they would ever have: a bed and food, methadone if they were junkies, and some semblance of a routine. For other blokes it was just time cut out of their lives. They would go stale in prison, while their kids grew up without them and their girlfriends cheated on them. I was only in for nine months, so I was hopeful that Emily would stay faithful. I was certain I could tell by her eyes and her face if she felt guilty, should I need to, but I expected her to stay loyal.
Carrying a knife will get you six months minimum to four years max, or at least that’s how it was when I got caught. I was an idiot for carrying a weapon while smelling strongly of weed. I’d gotten stoned with an old school friend, and headed home in the hopes of some stoned sex with Emily. My self-defense kitchen knife was stashed in my trousers, as it always was when I expected to walk home late at night. That stoned sex never happened.
My actual sentence was a year, but I kept my head down and my nose clean in the hopes of early release. I had those precious three months shaved off of an already soft punishment. My skin is white, and I’m made to believe that this must have gone in my favor at every stage of my relationship with justice. Sad but true; I’d change things if I could, but in reality I was just happy to get out as soon as humanly possible, after having made the most of a bad situation.
Inside I hit the weights every single day for as long as I could. I took classes as well. The classes were pretty neat. I learned how to wire a plug socket, how to put up a shelf, and how to cook. Cooking excited me the most. I wasn’t too hopeful about getting a proper job on the outside, but cooking would come in handy no matter what. Emily and the baby came to visit every week. She didn’t have anything particularly interesting to say, but it felt relaxing to sit and hear about the outside world. A new chippie opened up, so-and-so got pregnant, some twat had died… It was all a lot more entertaining than Emily’s drivel had ever been before.
When release day rolled around, I was itching to get out, get drunk, get high, and fuck. Emily’s mom picked me up. All three of us, plus the baby, crammed ourselves into her little Punto in the prison car park, and I was on my way home. Emily and the baby lived in the same council house they’d had when I was sentenced, and now it was my own official legal address.
“What are you going to do, now that you’re out Rob?” asked the mom.
“I kinda like cooking now,” I said.
“Oh yes, Emily said you’d been doing classes. Are you going to try get a job in a restaurant?”
“I’ll see. Have to take whatever comes, won’t I?”
She dropped us off at the house and waved goodbye. I carried the baby inside and we sat for a few hours watching TV.
“Are you going to cook something?” said Emily. “You can show me what you’ve learned.”
“What have you got in the cupboards?”
“Tins of veg, pasta, rice… Stuff like that.”
“I’ll see what I can do. I’m guessing you don’t have any spices or seasoning?”
“No, not really; just salt and pepper. Normally I just bung something into the oven or the microwave, same as always.”
I knocked together a ratatouille that wasn’t half bad. Emily was pretty impressed with it. We put the baby to bed and sat fooling around on the sofa. I’d been dreaming about women’s bodies the whole time I was inside. Nothing can ever really live up to dreams, but Emily did her best.
“Have you got much cash on you?” I asked once we were done.
“A few notes in my purse. Why?”
“I feel like having a smoke, and maybe some sniff.”
“Do you really need all that? That’s hardly straight and narrow, is it?”
“I’d settle for some booze.”
“Could get a bottle of vodka or something from the shop.”
“Go on then. Let me go get it.”
I went out with some money from Emily’s purse and picked up some vodka from the shop down the street. I also picked up a twenty-pack of Marlboros. I’d been smoking roll-ups inside, so proper cigarettes seemed like a nice way to celebrate getting out. We spent the evening drinking, smoking, and watching a couple of movies that had come out while I was locked up. We screwed a couple more times as well. Emily fell asleep on the couch at two in the morning. Family Guy was on.
Sat there with a glass of vodka and a Marlboro, I concluded that Emily wasn’t half bad. She was the kind of girl to put up with a lot; I’d have to push things awfully far before she ever got fed up with me. The baby was probably enough to keep us together, as long as I wanted to be with her. That’s assuming it was mine, but it probably was. We hadn’t exactly been an item when she’d gotten pregnant, but we’d been meeting often enough and the baby had my nose and jaw. Seeing myself in something small, new, and fresh had gotten me thinking: should I remain in the picture or not? Would I help it or hurt it? Assuming it was mine, I surely owed it something. I’m not the kind of guy to get into debt, and I like knowing what I owe and what I don’t. The conundrum lay in figuring out if I owed the kid my presence, or my absence. My own dad vanished before I was old enough to memorize his face. According my mother, that was the kindest thing he ever did.
Emily ended up getting a job not long after my release, doing cleaning or something. It was only part time, and she was hardly better off than before once her benefits were cut, but I think she wanted to feel productive. Her mom had the baby whenever she was out working. I started picking up ounces of weed from a chap I went to secondary school with, and selling it in draws. I could shift an ounce in a week at the most, and about eighty quid of that was profit. I ended up smoking about forty of that every time. Why not, after all? Money isn’t everything.
One time I had an appointment at the job center, and I ran into Ayaz. He was a tall, muscly bloke I’d been friendly with inside. He’d only just got out after a five-year stretch for beating someone up. We’d worked out together in the prison gym quite a lot. We talked and caught up, and he convinced me to come round to the gym he’d signed up at. It was full of jacked, tattooed fellas you wouldn’t want to mess with.
“How long until I’m as big as you lot?” I asked while I was resting from a set on the bench.
“Years and years,” said Ayaz. “ But it’ll be a lot quicker if you get on the steds.”
“Yes. I can hook you up if you want.”
“I’ll think about it.” I’d known Ayaz had taken juice before prison, then hadn’t been able to get the stuff he wanted while inside. Over the next few weeks he swelled up impressively, and his veins started to stand out. I decided that I wanted to look like that. I didn’t want anyone to want to mess with me. I stopped smoking weed, and starting vapeing instead of smoking fags. I quit drinking because Ayaz told me alcohol and steds don’t mix well at all. Once I’d saved up a bunch of money from the draws I had him sort out a cycle’s worth of gear. He helped me inject it. I started off in my right arse cheek. It hurt a lot but I only had to inject twice a week.
Emily wasn’t a fan of it at first. She worried, as women do. By the time I’d finished a twelve-week cycle I’d put on a fair amount of weight, and my arms and shoulders looked bigger than ever, and I think she was secretly happy. She probably thought other girls would get jealous seeing her with me. Another cycle or two and people would be moving out of my way wherever I walked, like they did with Ayaz. People would listen whenever I spoke. Something I’ve noticed is that if you intimidate people, then they listen to you. Seems obvious right? The question is: how important is it that people listen to you. Ever since I’d left prison, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was important, but that no one really was listening.
One night I cooked a lentil curry. We sat round the table eating it. The baby was having cut up carrots and cucumber and kiwi.
“Rob, can I go out with my friend Hayley tomorrow night?” asked Emily.
“Yeah sure.” Hayley was some other girl from work. Emily had mentioned her before.
“Would you look after Kenny?”
“Why? Is your mom busy?”
“Yes, she’s going on a date.”
“I suppose so.” I’d have preferred not to have the baby on my own. It was too much pressure, having to look after it. I couldn’t think of a reason not to agree though.
“We’re just going to go for food and some drinks,” said Emily. “I’ll be back before midnight.”
The next evening Emily got tarted up, and left me at home with the baby. He cried off and on, which did my head in. He finally piped down at about ten o’clock. I played video games and waited for Emily to get back. I was in the mood for sex, and she was always more fun in bed after a few drinks. I texted Ayaz and asked him to sort out another batch of steds for me. I wanted to get on cycle again soon. Whenever I looked in the mirror, what I saw wasn’t intimidating enough. I wanted to be dangerous looking.
I heard keys fumbling in the front door, then the door opening and the shouts and giggles of female voices. The baby started to cry.
“Sorry babe, the pub just closed and we thought we’d bring the party back here,” said Emily from the hallway, struggling to take off her shoes. “Don’t worry, I’ll sort him out.” She came into the living room. Her hair was all mussed up like she’d been dancing. She stood a little taller than she did when she was sober, as if an invisible weight that kept her fractionally hunched over had been dissolved and washed away by alcohol. “Rob this is Hayley. Hayley, Rob.”
I stood up, and came face to face with a ridiculously fit-looking woman. She had blue and green dye in her hair, piercings in her nose and ears, and tattoos on her arms.
“Hello,” she said shaking my hand. “Emily worships the ground you walk on; it’s nice to finally meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” I said.
Emily disappeared to go quite down the baby.
“Would you like a drink?” I asked. “We’ve got some spirits in the kitchen. Brandy needs finishing.”
“Go on then. I’ve had a few already so just a small one.”
I went into the kitchen and fixed us two brandy and Dr. Peppers. I took them back into the living room and gave one to Hayley. Emily came back in.
“He’s back to sleep now. Was he alright?”
“He moaned a bit while you were out, but he went to sleep about ten. Did you two have a nice time?”
“Yeah it was nice. I haven’t been out like that for years. Makes me feel young again. We’ll have to do it more often.”
Emily went and made herself a drink in the kitchen. I sat and tried to look at Hayley without her noticing. She had a nice body; probably hadn’t had any kids yet.
“So you do cleaning as well?” I asked.
“Yes, I was with the company for a while before Emily started. She helps me get through the day without killing myself, or anyone else. What do you do?”
“I sell drugs to be honest.”
“Oh…” I wondered if that was really a surprise to her. She must’ve known that I’d been inside, and that I didn’t have a proper job. Perhaps she was a little surprised that I came right out and said it. I couldn’t be bothered with anything else.
Emily came in with a pint of cider she’d poured into a glass.
“Shall we order takeaway?” she said. “I’m hungry. We could do with some food to soak up the alcohol.”
“No no no,” I said. I saw an opportunity to impress Hayley. “We’ve got stuff in the cupboards and the fridge; I can cook something before any food gets here by delivery. I know how to cook you see,” I said to Hayley.
“Are you sure? I don’t mind ordering,” said Hayley.
“Yeah, sure. I like cooking. I can do something really nice. Hey, I have an idea. Lets have a smoke, and that’ll build up our appetite. We’ll have the munchies by the time I finish. I know what I can make: sweet and sour chicken. I learned how to make a really good sweet and sour sauce while I was inside. It’s quick, and I’ll do it better than a takeaway.”
“You mean smoke weed?”
“Yeah sure. You smoke?”
“Not in ages, but go on then! It’s been a while, but I used to like it. I hadn’t drank or smoked in a while, now both in one night!”
I went and dug out my rolling stuff from the bedroom, then sat back down to make a joint. I used a lot of weed, and just enough tobacco for it to burn properly. Emily had gone to sleep straight away the last time she’d smoked, years before. Hopefully she would again, and I’d have some time alone with Hayley.
We sat smoking for a while. Then I left them to it and got started on the sweet and sour chicken. I heard the girls giggling in the living room while I banged away in the kitchen. The baby woke up again, and Emily went to soothe it back to sleep. Hayley followed her so she could have a look at the baby and goggle at it. I finished the food, and took three plates in. The girls had left the joint half-smoked in the ashtray. Emily’s eyes were drooping already, but Hayley still looked lively. We turned on the TV and sat eating.
“This is brilliant Rob,” said Hayley. “Best sweet and sour I’ve ever had, and I’ve had at least a thousand.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I try my best when it comes to cooking. It’s one of the few things I’m good at.”
Once we’d all finished eating I sparked up the joint again. We passed it around a few times, and that was enough for Emily. She curled up on the end of the sofa and started snoring. Hayley got up and put a hoodie over her, then sat back down next to me.
“You got a boyfriend or anything?” I asked.
“No actually. I broke up with my ex last week. That’s why we went out tonight. Emily wanted to help me drown my sorrows, even though he was a waste of space and I’m well rid of him. She told me to forget him and move on. I said that a good drinking sesh is a mandatory step.”
“That’s a nice tattoo,” I pointed to one of a koi fish on her left arm.
“Thanks. My grandma had a pond with koi in it. I loved looking at them.”
“I’ve wanted to get a tattoo for a long time.”
“Any ideas what you would get?”
“A few I guess. Maybe a ram… My star sign is Aries, so I was thinking of getting a ram on my chest you see.” I pulled my shirt off and dropped it on the floor. I flexed my chest muscles so that Hayley could admire them.
“Oh…” she said, “that could be…cool.”
“Have you got any other tattoos? Anywhere else I mean?”
I leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. She ran her fingers down my back for a moment, then froze and pushed me away. I looked into her face and saw that her eyes were on Emily, who was still asleep.
“She’s out for the count,” I whispered. “Trust me.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “No thank you.”
She stood up and patted her pockets. She had left her phone on the cushion beside her. She picked it up and slipped it into her pocket.
“I’ll see you soon,” she said, without looking at me. “Tell Em I said goodbye.” She leaned down to kiss Emily on the forehead and then walked out. I heard the front door open and close.
I sat there for a while feeling pissed off. I rolled another joint and smoked the whole thing. It must have been too much weed at once, especially since I’d been cutting down lately. Out of nowhere I started crying; I couldn’t stop from shaking and crying. All of a sudden I was worried about everything; every last single thing was scary to me. What if the steds had wrecked my organs? What if I got caught selling weed? What if Kenny grew up to be a murderer, and I got called a deadbeat dad? It all came tumbling down inside my head.
Emily woke up. She was scared and confused at first. Then she saw me crying and came over to comfort me. She stroked the back of my head and kissed me on the shoulder. I hated feeling out of control, it was worse than being locked up. At least then I’d had control of my own body. The sobs and tears kept on coming, and snot dripped out of my nose. I’m fairly certain that I haven’t cried in front of anyone since; I’m just as certain that I never will again.
“What’s the matter?” she said softly. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said wiping my eyes. “Nothing really. I don’t know… Hayley went home by the way, a while ago. She said goodbye.”
“Oh. Do you want to go to bed?”
We went to bed. We both undressed, and tried to make love, but I just couldn’t. It didn’t work. After that I lay there with my head across her chest, listening to her heartbeat. Was it supposed to be a comfort? The heartbeat of the mother of your child? It was too loud with my ear right next to it, and it reminded me that a human body is just a soft, wet pile of material and it will always be cruelly fragile and it will break apart and rot away no matter what you do. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t bring myself to pull my head away from her chest; I couldn’t bear to move my body at all.
I was frozen with panic; my mind and soul had been seized by an idea. An irrational, pathetic idea, but one that dominated my every fiber for all that: the idea was that the entire world was an illusion, fabricated to withstand the scrutiny of my eyes and senses. The sense of unreality was so strong that my rational mind stood no chance against it.
“What’s wrong baby?” said Emily, stroking my hair. “Whatever it is I’m here for you. I’m here for you no matter what.”
“Nothing…” I said, “nothing…”
“It doesn’t seem like it. You had too much to smoke?”
“He’s…he’s mine isn’t he?”
“What do you mean? Kenny? Obviously! Who else’s would he be, you idiot?”