Authors: Nigel Bird
a short novel
Published by Blasted Heath, 2014
copyright © 2014, Nigel Bird
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission of the author.
Nigel Bird has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover design by Blasted Heath
Visit Nigel Bird at
ay Spalding’s had enough of his wife, Paula. He’s left his home in Edinburgh’s Southside and headed for Belfast. It’s safer there.
Unknown to Ray, Paula’s also had enough of him. She’s not going back home. Not now, not ever.
Jesse Spalding wakes up one morning to find both his parents gone. And he can’t tell anyone or he’ll be taken into care.
As time passes and bills need paying, all Jesse can rely on are his wits, his friend Archie and his dad’s 1950s record collection.
is a powerful short novel that follows the spiralling fortunes of Ray and Jesse, pushing father and son to their limits while they struggle against the odds in the darker shadows of two of Britain’s capital cities.
hen the bell at Preston Street Primary rang to signal the end of the day, Jesse Garon Spalding felt his heart sink and his stomach rise to meet it, as if his organs had detached themselves and were drawn to each other. When they collided, they gave off some kind of pulse of discomfort that sped around his body and left him feeling completely miserable.
His friends and his enemies ran out of the doors as soon as Mr Clegg let them loose.
Jesse watched them all disappear around the corner while he zipped up his coat and pulled his hat down over his ears.
“What’s the matter, lad?” Mr Clegg asked, clearly eager to get shot of his charges and get home before the rush-hour traffic. “Have you no home to go to?”
The question was so close to the bone that Jesse winced, feeling his groin tighten. He tried to smile, picked up his bag and shuffled out into the cold air. “Night, Mr Clegg.”
The truth was he didn’t know if he had a home. He had a building. A flat on West Nicholson Street in the new block owned by the housing association. But a home was different. The vicar had said so when he came to do an assembly a few weeks back. A home was where you felt warm and safe and special. It was your castle. The place where you were looked after. A set of walls that helped to protect your family. None of that seemed like Jesse’s place.
The weather announced the winter. Jesse’s cheeks flushed in the chill of the wind and black clouds were closing in on the city so that it was much darker than it should have been at half-past three. He blew on his hands and shoved them inside his gloves. He thought about going back to the flat, but the shadows of the night before were still lurking. It had been worse than usual, the way his parents had been fighting. There’d been swearing and shouting just like normal, but there was also crashing and smashing and the slamming of doors. There was food all over the floor in the kitchen when Jesse had gone down to get breakfast, and there was blood. Blood on the wall and on the doors and splattered around the bathroom sink in such a way that meant Jesse hadn’t felt like cleaning his teeth. He didn’t want to know whose blood it was, just wanted to ignore it. Wanted to get back to find that everything was clean and straightened out and back to being its usual untidy self.
He hadn’t thought about what he was going to do, but when he arrived at the concrete steps of the Commonwealth Pool, he realised where he was heading. Looking up, he saw the top of Arthur’s Seat, just visible against the angry sky with none of the usual tourist figures to be seen. It was where he wanted to be. Where he’d feel safest of all.
All the way up, he sang to himself. ‘Bee-Bop-A-Lula’ by Gene Vincent And His Blue Caps, recorded back in 1956. The tune kept Jesse’s spirits up and his mind off the situation. The song had such a strong beat that it fitted the walk perfectly. He tried to imitate Vincent’s sweet tone as he went, the high pitch being a pretty easy reach for a boy of Jesse’s age.
By the time he got to the top, the darkness had set in. Down below, the lights glowed brightly. He could see the block where he lived, the madness of the parliament building and the huge dome of the Dynamic Earth. It looked Christmassy, his city, with its sparkling street lamps creating a halo above it. He thought about his own Christmas. What it might bring. Hoped it would be better than last year. If he’d believed in Santa, he’d have asked for his mum to stay sober and his dad to stay in. He whispered a little message into the night sky, just in case there might be someone there to hear him, and then set off on his descent.
When he got back, he pressed the buzzer for number 11 and held his breath. He’d know as soon as he heard the voice on the other end just what he was going to have to face. Only the voice didn’t come. The silence was worse than the rage he’d expected.
He pressed again, this time leaving his finger down hard for a count of five.
Again, there was no reply.
Jesse took off his glove and dug into his coat pocket until he found the key he was looking for. It was attached to the lining of the pocket by a string of elastic that he stretched until it reached the lock. He gave it a turn, pushed the door open and let the key ping back into its home.
He took the first flight and the second and slowed down for the third, counting each of the steps as he went. At the door to his flat, he stood and took a deep breath. He closed his eyes, tried to find some courage from somewhere and knocked.
When no one answered, Jesse felt his body soften, like it had been frozen for a while and was beginning to thaw.
He fumbled round in his other pocket for his other key, stretched out the elastic and opened the door a little way. There were no lights on and there was no music playing. Jesse pushed it all the way and went in.
He put his gloves and hat onto the peg inside the door, slipped out of his coat and hung it up. Took off his shoes and placed them neatly on the rack. He switched on the light and held up his arms while he cheered and punched the air.
His delight at being alone didn’t last long. He could see into the kitchen, the bowl of chilli still upturned on the table, the eruption of rice and beans all over the table and the floor. The salt pot was still smashed on the chair and there was still cutlery strewn about the place.
Jesse went over to the chair. He took a pinch of salt in his right hand and threw it over his left shoulder, then picked up a pinch in his left hand and threw it over his right. Hedging his bets as usual.
As he sat down on the other chair, he noticed something on the fridge that he hadn’t seen in the morning. It was a note stuck there underneath a Celtic FC magnet. He got up, moved the magnet and read.
“Jesse. You know I love you, don’t you? But you know I can’t stay any longer. I just can’t. I’m heading over to Ireland to stay with Uncle Cliff for a while. He says he can get me a job in Belfast if I want it and I guess it’s about time I earned my crust again. If it works out, I’ll be away for a couple of months. I’ll treat you to a chippy when I get back. Don’t be cross with me, son. And look after your mum. She’s a good woman deep down, if you can reach that far inside. And even if she has a funny way of showing it, she loves you too. Tell her I’ll not be home for tea. Or breakfast. I’ll give you a call soon as I’m there and don’t worry – I’ll definitely get you something to open on Christmas Day. Missing you already. Dad.”
He felt as winded as he did when his mother punched him in the stomach. He never knew exactly what he’d done to deserve it, but he always retraced his steps to try and work it out and did his damnedest not to do it again.
It took a moment for him to regain his breath. He leant on the kitchen chair to keep himself still. This couldn’t be happening.
When his body was refreshed by a new supply of oxygen, he got straight onto the phone. Hit the numbers hard and fast.
There were three rings before the message service clicked in. “Helloooooo Baby. Sorry I’m busy just now. Leave a number and I’ll get right back.” Jesse didn’t bother waiting for the beep and disconnected.
Something wasn’t right. His dad never switched his phone off. Panic fluttered around in Jesse’s chest.
The thought of living alone with his mum scared the life out of him. Without Dad around, there’d be no one to stick up for him. No one to get in the way of her fists. The inside of Jesse’s head swirled like water going down a plug-hole, and the spinning made him feel sick. He rubbed his temples to settle things down, ran the steps it took to get into his room and dived under the duvet on his bed.
t was after nine when he woke up.
The silence was eerie. The TV wasn’t on, Dad didn’t have his records playing and nobody was fighting.
Jesse got up and went into the kitchen.
First thing he did was clean up.
He was so hungry he considered collecting the chilli and heating it up in the microwave, but finding a hair in the middle of it put paid to that idea.
He put on his rubber gloves, fished out a cloth from the greasy soup of water in the washing-up bowl and gave everything a wipe-down. Once he’d done the kitchen, he sorted out the blood in the bathroom and on the kitchen walls and doors.
Soon as things were half straight, he went over to the record player in his dad’s room. On the turntable was an original copy of Buddy Holly’s album
That’ll Be The Day
, mint condition, which saved him looking for anything else. He lifted the record player’s arm and eased it gently onto the vinyl. There was a low crackle, followed by the sounds of Jesse’s heaven.
Funny, the way music always made Jesse feel better. The guitar made the fibres in his body twitch and jump so that he felt alive. Alive and hungry.
In the kitchen cupboards, he rooted around until he found what he wanted. A tin of spaghetti hoops and a Pot Noodle.
He put the kettle on to boil, switched on the computer and stuck the spaghetti into a bowl and then into the microwave. It was all like a wonderfully choreographed sequence that he acted out to perfection. The toaster down, the spaghetti out, the Pot Noodle filled, the internet accessed, the toast buttered, the dish served, the laptop ready for him when he sat down to eat.
He checked out his games page to see who was online and found there wasn’t anyone he wanted to hang out with.
As he wolfed down the hoops, he went over to the computer and signed in to his inbox. There was the usual spam, a link from Alfie to the new one from Annoying Orange on YouTube and one from his mum. His mum had never sent him an email before and Jesse felt uneasy seeing it there. It just didn’t feel right. Jesse couldn’t face opening the message straight away and allowed himself to be distracted by his lunch.
He finished his spaghetti, pushed the plate to one side and grabbed a forkful of Beef and Tomato noodles. Whoever invented these things was a genius. Right up there behind Elvis and Little Richard. Any food that could be made without doing any chopping or real cooking was something to celebrate and Jesse made sure he appreciated every mouthful out of respect.