Rachel followed Hayley and Sarah into WHSmiths, trying her hardest to look inconspicuous. They walked past a counter and its queue of customers. The only eyes that seemed to pay her any attention stared blindly from the front covers of the shelved magazines. The three girls wove their way through the store, heading for the stairs that lead to the first floor.
Upstairs, there were only a few customers and just one assistant working behind the counter, who was preoccupied with a credit card transaction. The girls ambled over to a display of batteries. Rachel, when she was sure that no one was watching her, reached out and took two packets, sliding them off the rack together. Hayley and Sarah moved a little closer to her, shielding her left side from the gaze of a security camera mounted close to the ceiling behind them. Rachel slowly shook her head, quickly dropping one packet of batteries into a deep overcoat pocket as she placed the other packet back on the rack with her other hand. "They sell those a lot cheaper in Woolworths," she said.
"Not much cheaper," Sarah whispered with sarcasm.
As the girls turned around, Rachel noticed two men standing, nearly surrounded by shelves stacked with video cassette cases. Both of the men were wearing black suits and ties, and one of them was looking straight at her with a slightly puzzled expression on his face.
For an instant, Rachel's imagination produced an image of herself sitting in a prison cell. Shit! This doesn't feel right, Rachel thought. We're going to get caught. I should put the batteries back and...
"Then let's go look in Woolworths," Hayley said. She was already walking towards the stairs with Sarah beside her.
Rachel followed her friends, fighting an urge to run.
Behind her, two pairs of footsteps began their staircase descent as she set foot on the ground floor. The girls strolled around the shoppers, advancing through the store. Rachel paused as they approached the shop's front entrance, looking back to see if they were being pursued. A few seconds to scan the crowd, she could not see either of the black suited men who had been upstairs only moments before. Rachel walked around a woman with a child in a pushchair, then she reached forward, her perspiring palm on glass. As she stepped out onto the precinct, Rachel was sure that the sign on the glazed door read:
THANK YOU FOR SHOPPERS WILL
SHOPLIFTING WITH US BE PROSECUTED
The policeman standing outside McDonalds, on the opposite side of the precinct, was the next thing that her eyes focused on. Sarah and Hayley had already altered direction. Rachel hurried after them, cursing silently as she entered the narrow alleyway between WHSmiths and Top Shop.
"It's alright, he wasn't looking at us," Hayley reassured Rachel once she had caught up.
"Who wasn't?" Rachel asked, feeling confined, flanked by damp brick walls.
"The copper. Didn't you see him?" Sarah said, frowning at her.
"Let's just go back to mine," Rachel suggested, anxious to get away from the scene of the crime.
As Hayley stepped out from the dark alleyway, she nearly walked straight into Nathan.
Three teenage girls and two men stood face to face in static silence by the rear entrance to WHSmiths. Rachel made eye contact with him. His hair was windswept, he needed a shave, and he had the same puzzled look on his face now as when he had been watching her inside the store. His eyes crept down to the coat pocket her arm disappeared into, the batteries held tight in her hand. The other man was taller and broader. He appeared to be bemused, holding his recent purchase in a WHSmiths carrier-bag.
Hayley was the first to speak. "Sorry," an apology for the near collision, followed by her cutest smile. She moved to step past the two men.
"Not so fast..." Nathan reached out and gripped Rachel's arm.
What should have been a scream emerged from Rachel as a whimper. His fingers clamped tight around her forearm, she looked to Sarah and Hayley for help. They stood like statues, ready to run, an expression mixed from guilt and shock carved on their faces.
"Girls, you've got to be more careful than that," Nathan told them. "I'm a store detective. I saw you put a packet of batteries in your pocket that you didn't pay for."
Tony briefly smiled; then he became deadly serious. "You two can piss off!" he vigorously articulated to Sarah and Hayley.
The order took the two girls by surprise. "What..?" Hayley gestured toward her captive friend. "How comes we can go and she can't?"
Rachel squirmed in Nathan's grip. "Because I didn't see you two steal anything," he said.
"Look, we're gonna report your friend here to the police." Tony took a single step towards Hayley. "Want to be arrested with her?"
Don't leave me, was Rachel's only thought as her two friends both gave her concerned glances, slowly walking back into the alleyway.
"Right, I'll phone the police," declared Tony when the girls were out of sight, then he retreated through WHSmiths' back door.
My mum's going to kill me, Rachel realised and her legs began to uncontrollably tremble. She quickly looked about the deserted back street: the alleyway, the rear entrance to WHSmiths and the loading bays to several other high street shops before her, the hind face of a block of flats behind her, and one-way traffic flowed past the cul-de-sac's exit a few hundred feet away.
"What's your name?" The man suddenly turned friendly, even his grip relaxed a fraction, but not enough for Rachel to escape.
"Er..." Don't give him your real name. Think, quick. "Winona… Morrison."
"Winona?" He seemed to question the name's authenticity and for a moment she thought that he might laugh; then he shook his head. "I think not. What's your real name?"
"Louise Adams," Rachel said reluctantly.
"Louise, did you take anything else out of there?"
A sensation of shame made Rachel lower her head. "No," she said.
"But you've liberated merchandise from there before, haven't you? That looked like a tried and tested technique. Take two, put one back. Pocket the other. Get your friends to cover the camera."
Rachel did not respond, quickly looking at WHSmiths' back door, expecting to see the police coming out of the store.
"Well, you're going to give back the batteries that you stole," Nathan said, his free hand offered out.
Her whole body now trembling, her heart hammering, Rachel produced the packet of batteries and when he directed his attention to it, she let it slide from her fingers. He tutted and his grip relaxed a little more, moving down around her wrist, while his other hand swooped and grasped at the falling batteries. Rachel heard the plastic packet hit the pavement and she forced her knee deep into his groin, wrenching her arm away from his clutches as he crumpled with an agonised gasp. Then she was running down the shadowy back street towards the traffic, blood rushing, boots pounding, the tail of her overcoat flying behind her.
Monday 1st December 1997
Came straight home after school, got changed & went downtown. Tried to lift some batteries for my walkman from WHSmiths & was caught by a couple of store detectives, or so they said. They let Hayley & Sarah go, then one of them went off to "phone the police", leaving me alone with this guy who had hold of my arm & was giving me the third degree. I was getting majorly stressed, thinking the cops are going to show up any second & Mum is going to go mental when she finds out. My fight or flight instincts must have taken over, because I did both by kneeing him in the nuts & running away.
I caught up with Hayley & Sarah on the edge of our estate & told them what had happened. They thought it was funny & said they didn't think the men were real store detectives. They had seen the big guy come straight out the front of WHSmiths, he didn't have time to call the cops. They kept watch from inside Woolworths & then saw the other guy come staggering out of the alleyway, looking really angry. They sussed that I had escaped & split. So who were those guys if they weren't store detectives? Sarah also said she'd seen both the men downtown before & that Roxanne spoke to one of them once. I'll have to speak to her later if she's at Blake's.
The stupid thing is that we can afford to buy the things that we lifted. Hayley took some blank tapes & Sarah stole some hair dye. We only lift from the big chain stores & I know that they allow for losses due to theft. Sarah says they rip everyone off, so why shouldn't she rip them off. Consumer revenge. But the truth is she gets a real buzz out of it, you tell by the glint in her eyes as she pockets something, by how excited she gets talking about it afterwards. I've always felt uncomfortable doing it, mainly through a fear of being caught rather than feeling that I'm doing something wrong. Shoplifting is a game of chance & sooner or later your luck has to run out & I'm taking today's close encounter as an omen that mine already has.
Mum was in a good mood when I got home, humming to herself in the kitchen as she cooked dinner. She asked what time was I planning on getting home later, which means that she must be seeing Him again tonight. She's in her bedroom right now, fussing about with her hair & putting on lipstick, another dead giveaway, probably waiting for me to go before she calls him. She hasn't spoken about Him since I confronted her, when she made it clear that she thinks her affair has nothing to do with me, even though it's torn this family apart. I don't even know who he is. Why all the secrecy? Is he married too?
Really looking forward to my birthday tomorrow, already have a few cards. Wonder what presents I'll get!
Rachel was hiding her diary back under her mattress when Hayley knocked. Together they walked to Sarah's house in the next street.
"I just spoke to Roxy on the phone," Sarah said as she shut her front door behind her. "She says that if we're both talking about the same person, that it might have been Jason's older brother."
"Oh, excellent," Hayley said without enthusiasm. "You mean one of those chancers pretending to be store detectives earlier?"
Sarah nodded, the wind playing with her long, fair hair.
"Which one?" Rachel enquired. "Not the one that I...?"
Sarah laughed, still nodding.
"Shit," Rachel sighed.
The girls increased their pace as light rain began to fall from the dark grey sky overhead.
"How much did you tell Roxanne?" Hayley wanted to know.
"Nothing, I just asked her who were those guys that she spoke to downtown a few weeks ago. She said it might have been Jason's brother."
"Might have been," Rachel muttered.
Seven years ago, Blake's father had bought a plot of land on the outskirts of the town centre, and then hired contractors to build six semi-detached houses. A couple of years later, Blake's father sold four of the houses, the other two he carried on renting out. It was in one of these houses that Blake lived. He had shared it first with his sister, who now lives in Cambridge, where she is studying art history at University. Blake had then asked his girlfriend, Gail, to move in. That arrangement and the rest of their relationship had lasted for about six months. Blake had since lived by himself in the three-bedroom house.
As Rachel, Hayley and Sarah walked up Blake's path they could hear the band inside playing one of their songs, but Rachel could not hear Blake singing along. She went over to his car parked on the driveway, held her hand out, her palm hovering above the warm, wet bonnet for a moment. Then she joined her friends waiting on the sheltered doorstep, smoking a damp joint and avoiding the drizzle. When the music was over, Rachel rang the doorbell.
Jason answered the door. "Girls, you have been expected," he said, trying his hardest to impersonate Vincent Price. "Welcome to the Asylum." Jason's Hammer Horror act continued as he opened the door wide, supplying his own creaking hinge sound effect.
Rachel was briefly startled as she noticed a distinct family resemblance between Jason and his elder brother. It's okay, it's just Jason, she reminded herself. She smiled at him and stepped over the threshold.
"Jase, you headcase. What you lot up to?" Hayley asked as she entered the house.
"Just jamming," Jason told her.
"Blake just finish his shift?" Rachel said, taking off her coat.
"He's upstairs, getting changed," Jason explained.
"Is your brother a bit strange?" Sarah asked him. "Got a bit of a strange sense of humour?"
Rachel could tell by the bewildered look on Jason's face that he was thinking: When has Sarah ever met my brother? So she quickly said, "Sarah's only asking because her little brother is. Strange, very. In fact..." Rachel turned to sternly face Sarah.
"Yeah! I'll tell you what, I'm never going to the cinema with your little brother again. He never shuts up," Hayley agreed, frowning at Sarah.
Jason started to move towards the living-room. "What film did you all go see?"
"Er... Men In Black," Hayley said and Sarah giggled.
"Can I have a quick privy?" Rachel asked Sarah, then pulled her over to the foot of the stairs without waiting for an answer. "I thought that we agreed to forget about, you know what, and not mention it in front of anyone," she quietly said.
"Not even Jason?" Sarah whispered.
"Especially not Jason," Rachel emphasised. "Or Roxanne. The whole thing's weird enough already without-"
"Hey Rachel," Blake called from the top of the stairs. He sat on and then slid down the handrail supported by banisters, landed on his feet with a thud in front of them. "How's your final day as a fifteen-year-old been?"
"A bit bizarre," Rachel admitted. "Could have been worse, I suppose." They could have been real store detectives and I could have been really arrested.
"Well…" Blake said, placing an arm around Rachel and Sarah's shoulders, guiding them down the hallway. "The fridge is full, the pipe is being passed around, and you've got live entertain-"
"Blake! I've gotta go soon," Doug announced as they entered the living-room. He was sitting behind the drum kit, set up with the rest of the band's instruments and equipment at the far end of the room, in front of the curtain covered patio doors.
"Man, I only just got here," Blake mumbled as he walked over to the fridge. He took out a couple of cans of lager, passed them to Rachel and Sarah. "Hayley, catch!" Blake threw a can over to where Hayley was sitting with Jason and Roxanne.
Rachel greeted Roxanne and reclined on the large beanbag beside the sofa. For the first time that day, she felt totally comfortable with her environment.
Blake's weathered, red leather jacket was lying on top of one of the PA system's speakers. Blake picked it up and then shrugged it on.
"Blake," Doug said impatiently. "I've got to go in a minute. I said I'd be over Eve's by half eight."
"Sure thing Douglas. Let's just rehearse at least one song while we're all together, then you can depart." Blake took the microphone from its stand. "Jason, Roxy, whenever..."
Roxanne extinguished her cigarette in an empty lager can, then she crossed the room, lifted her bass guitar from the carpet. Jason gave Blake's pipe and a piece of cling-film covered cannabis resin to Rachel. "Take that and party," he said with a grin, and then he walked away to go and plug his guitar in.
"What number we doing?" Roxanne asked as she adjusted a few knobs on her amp.
"Let's see how we get along with our latest," Blake said.
It was Doug's beat that started them off.
"You're the original singularity. An embryo universe. The epicentre of my reality..." Blake sang, dark curls hanging over his eyes, a print on his T-shirt of Jack Nicholson leering murderously through an axed door. "...Fission and fusion. Torn apart and thrown together. We become a detonation. Destined to explode forever..." Blake's voice raised to almost screaming. Rachel inhaled deeply from the pipe and began to feel that familiar feeling. Her head swaying in time to the music as the song reached its climax, then Blake was nearly whispering: "...Until the eve of eternity. As the final flame flickers and dies, we lie. Exhausted, in a perfect state of maximum entropy."
"I'm gone," Doug said, getting up and throwing his drumsticks, which hit the ceiling and then fell to the floor. He hurried out of the room, down the hallway, out through the front door.
Jason and Roxanne lifted the straps of their guitars over their heads, rested their instruments against the wall. Roxanne tugged at her long, white dress, pulling it straight, then she grabbed Jason by the belt of his jeans, and dragged him over to the doorway. "Back in a while," she said as they left the room.
"We're meant to be rehearsing, not copulating," Blake called to their footsteps on the staircase. He returned the microphone to its stand, switched the PA system off; then he strolled over to the sofa.
"I think that's gonna be one of my favourite of your songs," Rachel said, looking up at him.
He knelt down in front of her and smiled. "I'll dedicate it to you at the gig on Friday. Speaking of which, I've got to pop into The Angel and quickly confirm everything with the landlord. Then would you like to help me put up some posters around town?"
Rachel was nodding and about to answer when Blake's next-door neighbour rang the doorbell.