Amber Kenny was a timid child. She had a round face and hair to match her name. Every night she prayed for her wild, orange curls to turn dark and straight but every morning they bounced back into place, redder than ever.
Jules (Amber’s mum) had black wiry hair that burst free from any clip she used to contain it and she wore low cut tops that exposed her balloon-shaped breasts. “Didn’t spend ten grand on these puppies to keep them under wraps, did I now?” Amber thought Jules looked more like Amy Winehouse’s mum than Amy Winehouse’s real mum did.
Bernie (Amber’s grandma) was Irish and short. She was only sixteen years older than Jules and dyed her hair the colour of Parma Violets every two months. She’d grown up near Coleraine in Northern Ireland, which Amber misheard as Cold Rain and thought sounded very creepy and like somewhere she would never want to visit.
Around town, the trio received pointed looks and were the subject of gossip: “Look at them Kenny women. Poor girl – did you hear what happened to her father?”
Amber’s dad, Jerry Kahn, was a restaurateur and gambler. They lived in a detached house with a rainbow-shaped drive in the ‘posh’ end of town fifteen minutes from Bernie’s bungalow in the ‘dodgy’ end. Amber’s room was across the hallway from her parents and she woke nightly to sounds of struggle. Knuckles banging on flesh, slapping, growling and the occasional, “stop it you bastard,” until they fell silent again.
In the space of three particularly reckless months, Jerry lost all of his money and Jules found him hanging from the plastic chandelier in their bedroom a few days after Amber’s seventh birthday.
Not long after, their house was seized. Amber heard Jules hissing into the phone: “Fucking prick left me with nothing, apart from another mouth to feed. If he wasn’t dead, I’d kill him.”
Amber imagined a giant hand plucking their home from the ground and smushing it into a bricky paste between finger and thumb. She felt better when Jules said they could take their things with them. In the end, no one took it anywhere – Amber cycled past it every week for two months to check – and a new family moved in.
They went to stay with Bernie for a bit, which turned into a year, which turned into the rest of Amber’s childhood. Every day after school, Bernie met Amber and they walked home together. Bernie saw it as an opportunity to continue Amber’s education.
“You can’t trust men, pet. Not even the ones you know. Especially those ones. You remember what happened to me?” Amber nodded.
Bernie was raped by a neighbour while she babysat his children and couldn’t have an abortion. She told Amber the story several times and it always went the same: “I cried every night watching my belly swell up. Thought I’d hate the wee monster once it came out, but I took one look at your ma’s screwed up face and thought I’ll be fecking damned if you make me hate my baby too.”
When Amber turned thirteen, she asked if she could walk home from school by herself.
Once a month they went to Pizza Express. Amber saw the staff groan when they arrived and felt her cheeks flush. Once, a waitress forgot to make sure there were no jalapenos on Bernie’s pizza and, while she was still in earshot, Bernie leant into Amber and said, “that’s why you work hard, pet, so you can do more than bring the wrong food to a table.”
As soon as she could, Amber became a nurse. She studied for three years in south-east London and got a job in paediatrics at Kings College Hospital. Every month, she spent two thirds of her salary on a tiny flat in Peckham. She told Jules and Bernie she needed to live in London because the commute to Essex was too far but, really, she liked it.
On her second day, Nick Treevil introduced himself. He was a junior project manager and smiled every time they passed each other in the corridor. One evening, he met her after her shift with takeaway tea in polystyrene cups and walked her to the tube. He had wispy hair, very pale skin and thin lips like a shallow upturned ‘w’. He asked Amber for a drink and they started dating. After a year, they were married and a year after that, she gave birth to a baby. They named him Paul.
Bernie was horrified.
“That’s not a name for a fecking baby. Have some imagination, Amber, pet. Dear lord.”
Amber found it in The Complete Book of Baby Names and thought it sounded normal, which is what she wanted him to be. As it turned out, names don’t have the power to stop the inexorable progression of congenital disease. At eight months he still wasn’t crawling and on his first birthday he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
The doctor explained the disease to them in his office. “It means he will have trouble with–”. Amber stared out of the window. She knew what it would mean.
It drove a neat wedge between her and Nick, whose smiles had long disappeared. “It was probably all that second-hand smoke in your grandma’s hovel,” he said, as they drove home.
A few weeks later, Amber came home from the supermarket without baked beans. He’d texted her asking for them, but she hadn’t checked her phone and when she said as much he slugged her hard across the chin. She turned to face him, her jaw ringing, and he fell to the floor, inconsolable.
It was written off as a blip.
The bruise took four weeks to melt back into her skin. Four weeks when he didn’t touch her. But just as the final yellow-green tinge disappeared, violence became a permanent dinner guest at her table. Nick shook and slapped and smacked her when they argued. Amber stopped arguing so he did it if she left the lights on in the bathroom, if she broke a glass, if she let groceries go off.
She decided another baby might help. At four months pregnant, she poured herself a small glass of wine after work while Paul watched The Simpsons. Nick came home before she’d finished it and the argument that followed ended with her falling down the stairs.
She lay in bed that night cradling her stomach, murmuring to herself until she fell asleep and woke again while it was still dark. The sheet beneath her was sodden and she thought she’d wet herself but the dampness at her crotch was sticky and there was a pressure building in her back. She tiptoed to the bathroom and miscarried her baby sitting on the toilet. Eyes clamped shut, she reached behind herself and pulled hard on the flush. Then she relocated to the bath and sat in two inches of tepid water until the pain died down and the sun came up. She dragged herself up, called in sick to work and took Paul to Bernie’s.
“What did I tell you, pet?” Bernie marched Amber to the police station but she wouldn’t press charges. There was a conversation with a young police officer Amber struggled to remember. She could, however, recall his pained expression and Bernie’s reprimands as they wandered back home.
“You don’t have to go home to him,” Amber said.
“Neither do you, pet,” Bernie replied.
But she did go home to him. And a freshly made bed.
Amber turned twenty-nine and Paul turned six. He was in a special primary school for disabled children. His intelligence was normal by all accounts, but his movement was impaired, and he couldn’t write because of the angle of his wrists.
The presence of grief didn’t get rid of violence, Amber just had to make room for them both. She no longer saw friends, she no longer cried, she had to visit Bernie and Jules without Nick and be at home at a pre-arranged time. The very last time he hurt her, he slammed her into their bedroom doorframe so hard they both heard her rib snap. She took four weeks off work and the night before she was due to go back, she lay awake while he slept next to her and felt something unlock in her mind. At four o’clock the next morning, she turned up on Bernie and Jules’s doorstep with Paul and two suitcases.
Bernie handled the divorce for her. In return, she begged Amber to let her break into his house in the dead of the night with a machete and a tarpaulin. Amber talked her out of it and took a year off work. Nick left them alone.
During that year, the four of them ate dinner together every evening. On Fridays it was tuna bake. One Friday, Amber began stacking their empty plates as Paul reviewed his new Harry Potter book. She stood up and carried the stack to the sink. Behind her, Paul did an impression of Snape that made Bernie and Jules hoot. She turned back around and saw his face – two bright eyes dancing above a lopsided beam.
A wave of relief swept up her body, pushed her head upwards and turned her towards the sink. Her tears pooled in her ears as she steadied herself against the chipped counter.
Bernie sidled up to her and took over the washing up. “Feck off you little lightweight.”
It wasn’t long before Jules introduced her to online dating.
“I haven’t got time, mum.”
“Don’t be a silly twat. Can’t let this pretty face go to waste.”
She matched with more people than she’d expected, and her stomach did a somersault every time a text appeared on her phone. Her first date was with a forty-year-old accountant called Carson who rowed in his spare time. She spent an hour getting ready, pulled her hair back into a bun and put on one of Jules’s lipsticks. They met at Waterloo and he suggested one of the bars on the mezzanine inside the station, since his train was leaving from there later. She drank two glasses of wine while he sipped a water and described, in detail, the layout of his home gym.
Her second date was with Daniel. She showed Bernie his profile picture before she left to meet him. “Dear lord, Amber, pet. He looks like a young James Dean.”
Daniel was handsome, even up close. He had brown eyes, straight teeth and big hands with clean, neat nails. He told her about his job in the city and his two daughters from a previous marriage. He smelt like the inside of a seashell and he was polite to waiters.
For their fourth date, he invited her to his home. They were discussing it by text. I don’t want to stay over yet, she wrote. I’ll order you a taxi home after dinner, he replied.
He lived in Willesden Green in the downstairs flat of a terraced house. The décor was simple. Muted tones and straight lines, six manicured logs stacked in the empty fireplace and a vase of fake white flowers on the mantelpiece next to an empty silver photo frame.
“Ran out of pictures?” she held the frame up.
He laughed. “I’m just waiting for some new prints to arrive.”
They drank red wine and he served her spaghetti pomodoro. Daniel spent most of the evening asking questions about Paul and asking to see pictures of him. She asked about his daughters.
“I’m having a hard time with their mother at the moment, do you mind if we talk about something else?”
When they sat down for dinner, Daniel opened another bottle of Malbec which they finished by dessert. Then another – a ‘digestif’.
“I thought a digestif was whisky,” she said, aware she was slurring.
“You can have a whisky as well if you like,” he kissed her on the forehead.
By eleven o’clock she was completely drunk.
“Let me order you a cab.” He spent a few minutes on his phone and then joined her on the sofa. He kissed her. She pressed into him, emboldened by the alcohol. Then, as she pulled away, he placed his arm around her waist. She heard him laughing.
“I should get ready,” she tried to get up, but he grabbed her thigh, her neck and then she was underneath him, face down. His hand, the size of her face, pressed down on her head and neck and his knees pinned into the back of hers. He was still laughing as he unbuckled his trousers. She couldn’t speak or move but she managed to twist her head to the side and, as he tore down her underwear and thrust into her, her eyes focused like lasers on the empty silver photo frame on the mantelpiece.
When he was finished, he stood up and stretched. She heard the sound of his belt buckle and his footsteps on the floorboards. She pulled her underwear up, folded her legs under her and sat, frozen.
“Did you hear me?” She turned and saw him looking at her from the kitchen table. His body was relaxed, legs open wide, eyebrows raised. She didn’t recognise his expression. “Your cab is outside.”
She stood up slowly, watching him for any sudden movements. He took a final swig of whisky as she reached for her bag and coat. Then she bolted out of the door.
When she arrived home, she creeped through the house and locked herself in the bathroom. She wanted to scream. She wanted to pull the mirror off the wall and smash it against the sink, rip the shower curtain until the rail ruptured the walls – cracking them and dragging them inwards. She wanted to raze the house to the ground but her family were asleep, so she cowered by the toilet, rocking her aching body back and forth.
The next morning, Jules was sipping her coffee by the toaster. “How was James Dean? Did you finally give him a snog?”
“It’s not going to go anywhere.” Amber picked an apple from the fruit bowl and walked away.
“Jesus Christ, Amber. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
Amber blocked Daniel and deleted her dating apps. Apart from the occasional comment from Bernie: “I don’t know why you let that one go, pet. He was fecking gorgeous,” they eventually stopped mentioning him.
Every so often Amber would go into a trance. In it, she fantasized about Nick and Daniel together. She imagined killing them in a gruesome, tortuous way. Setting them alight and watching them burn. Hacking them into pieces, feeding them to pigs. Peeling their skin off and stabbing them repeatedly before slicing a final blow into their temples.
When Amber returned to work, she was on the emergency ward at the Princess Alexandra in Harlow. It was the bank holiday weekend in August and the hospital was hot. At midnight, she stopped to drink a cup of water by the main desk when her bleeper squealed by her hip. She downed the rest of her water and walked to theatre. The team were debriefed. A forty-two-year-old man with three stab wounds to his chest; a domestic violence attack.
She gowned up, pulling her gloves on deliberately. Watching each finger press into its rubber mimic. The patient was already on the table when she entered. The lead surgeon gave his instructions and she walked to the top of the table as the anaesthetists moved away from the patient’s head.
Amber looked down at his face and her breath stopped in her throat. Daniel looked like he did when they first met – beautiful, calm. A number of ideas went through her head: trip on his lines and rip them out, inject lethal amounts of morphine into his veins, grab the scalpel and puncture him with it until the flatline sounds.
In reality, she just did her job. He died anyway. His heart had been punctured and it didn’t take long. The surgeon announced his death, he was wheeled out of theatre and Amber offered to take him down to the morgue.
Amber had seen people hack up spit on the street, projecting it onto the pavement from their mouth with an ease and fervour she never quite understood, but as she pushed Daniel through the silent corridors of the hospital, her stomach tightened and her mouth began to fill. Outside the morgue, she stopped the trolley and peeled the sheet back. She took a deep breath, half expecting him to open his eyes and grab her, and then she spat on his face. Her saliva crawled down the side of his cheek and she imagined his body being lowered into the ground, each cell of him turning to rot and every tooth collapsing to dust.
She arrived home from her shift the next morning to breakfast. Bernie, Jules and Paul were at the kitchen table eating smoked salmon and eggs.
“How was work, mummy?”
She kissed the back of his head. “It was fine.”
Image: – Pixabay.com