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Wild Dog Winter

by  Steerpike`s sister

Posted: Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Word Count: 2476
Summary: Synopsis: 16 year old Joo Russell's life is turned upside down when her father leaves to live with another woman. She obssessively tries to get him back, and drives her friends away in the process. It is only when her Italian mother decides to go on a winter holiday to find her roots, that Joo manages to finally find closure.


Chapter one: ARRIVAL

They’re heading down the SS18 in the rented Fiat. It’s been dark since they landed at Naples, and the road swings back and forth to avoid mountains, but Mum is flooring it. There’s a CD on, an album of Italian folk songs - Mum sings along as if she’s alone, as if Joo isn’t sitting there in the front gripping the door handle, wondering when they’ll finally crash, and thinking What am I doing here; how did I end up here? The last time she came to Terra Dura was three years ago, but it feels like a century.
Maybe, she thinks, when I open the car door Italy will pop like a bubble and I’ll be back home in Birmingham and none of this will ever have happened. She almost tries it, that’s the kind of mood she’s in. Instead she steals a glance at her mother. Jo Russell’s sunglasses are thrust high on her head like a tiara, her lipstick is beginning to migrate to her chin, but her smile is fierce. Joo thinks of saying, slow down, but then she doesn’t. Sometimes you can’t slow down. No matter what people tell you.
The headlights touch pizza restaurants with neon signs, fig trees like silver candelabra, patches of quivering reeds, elegant curves of wild grass. Unexpected things that surge up and are gone like ghosts: skips with rubbish bags piled beside them, a supermarket called Despair – no, DeSpar. When Joo sees the dog’s eyes golden in the headlight she flinches, but Mum has seen her just as quickly and swerves.
“Don’t worry, I learnt to drive on these roads,” she tells Joo.
Joo flattens her face against the window and watches the dog for the few seconds it is still visible in the wing mirror. Behind it there are three more – all different sizes, some caramel brown, others patched ghost-pale and dark. She can’t place a breed though she can see Alsatian ears, retriever muzzles. None of them have collars. “Whose are all the dogs?” she asks Mum.
“No-one’s. They’re wild. Abandoned. Holiday makers sometimes dump their dogs out here.”
“What? Why?”
“Oh, because they’re fed up with them, I suppose. And it’s hard to get rid of a dog up North. They drive down here and let them loose. And then they become wild, of course.”
“That’s the cruellest thing I’ve ever heard of,” Joo says.

The road flattens out and to the right the blackness of sea opens out. To their left, the shape of mountains, the occasional light that means a farmhouse. Joo puts her earphones in and lets her mind slide. Three years ago, she thinks, it was summer here. She remembers stepping off the plane and realising that everything she’d been taught in science lessons was true: the sun really was an immense atomic explosion, and very close to Earth. Her tan had lasted till Christmas. Her mind slips off that and instead she finds herself thinking: How will I bury Lara?
“It’s ten to midnight,” Mum says. “Joo! Are you listening?” She reaches over, tugs at her earphones.
“Mum! What?”
“It’s nearly new year!”
“So what?”
“A brand new future. A bright new life to look forward to. Shining and glorious and happy.”
“I hate new life,” says Joo. “I don’t want a future.”
Mum sighs and pushes her sunglasses up into her hair. In this collapsed light, she and Joo look like sisters. Joo and Jo; Guiseppa and Giovanna. The only difference is that Mum’s curly hair is greyer than ever in the moonlight, and Joo’s is so dark it’s just part of the shadows around her face.
“You used to be so sweet-tempered when you were a baby. Always smiling. Whatever happened to my little ray of sunshine?”
“She’s dead,” says Joo. “Like Lara.”
She can’t see the sadness, but she can hear it when Mum says, “I just want you to be happy, Joo. Why is that so hard?”

Turning up through Ascea, they pass the spot-lit tower and the ruins.
“We went on so many picnics there,” Mum says, and then is silent. Joo knows why: we no longer exists. The road doubles back and forth across the hill, the cars they meet coming down are in the middle of the road and wander back into lane when they see them.
About half way up, there is a parking bay and large, locked metal gates. Behind the gates are what look like small houses. Mum pulls over and stops the car.
“What are you doing?” Joo switches off her i-pod. “This is the cemetery.”
“Remember how you always used to want to play in there?” Mum says. “You thought the tombs were Wendy houses.” She laughs.
“Is that why you’ve stopped? To remind me how stupid I was when I was a kid?”
“No. To look at the view.”
Joo follows her out of the car. It’s not warm, and she hugs herself, her thin jacket tugging in the wind. The hill drops away in the car headlights. Grass, yellow and shining. Rabbit-crouched stones. Beyond, darkness. Electric lights seeding the hills. The black snug of sea against land.
“Life is so simple here, Joo,” says Mum, and there’s the sadness again. “I sometimes wish I had stayed. Never gone to England.”
“Then I wouldn’t exist,” says Joo.
“You would. You’d just be different.”
“That’s what I mean.”
“You might be happier.”
Joo doesn’t answer. She feels Mum looking at her – that helpless expression that she knows means what happened to you, where did I go wrong?
“If life is so simple here,” she says, “why didn’t you go home for years?”
Mum turns away. After a moment she says, “Your grandparents are buried down there, you know.”
Joo looks at the cemetery gates. Behind them are people she’s never met, without whom she couldn’t exist. She doesn’t know how to feel about that.
I could give Lara an eco-friendly burial, she thinks. A cardboard coffin.
“I didn’t tell Pino and Cecilia anything, Joo. About you – you know – going off the rails.”
It is not the first time she has used that phrase, and Joo is struck once again at how right it is. Derailed, her life has been derailed. Mum is looking at her as if she ought to be grateful for the cover-up. She can’t bring herself to say thank you.
New Year saves her.
There is a whistle like a distant shell coming down. Gunfire. And the darkness blooms with fireworks. Red. Gold. Green. Light crackles as it pours down. And then the second wave, from right below them, shooting up and exploding with a boom that shakes the bay, echoed from the other side of the hill by a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. Flowers explode in the sky, the hills are wild with barking dogs, an owl surges up from the cemetery with a screech, and the sky is flashing and exploding and thundering and lightning and the hills are rattling and smoke drifts in long scarves across the bay. Joo breathes and tastes gun powder.
Mum is crying while she smiles, or maybe her eyes are just watering from the smoke.
“Welcome to the future,” she shouts at Joo. “Aren’t they brilliant? I knew it was a good idea to come back here, I knew it.”
And Joo can’t tell her how much she hates the fireworks, hates this different, unexpected future, coming at her all wrong, no brakes. She clenches her hands around the night air, but all there is to hang onto is her own dirty palms.

Chapter two: HOW I GOT THERE

It’s easy to go off the rails. You just have to have the right attitude.

It was the last day of the autumn term, just after I’d slapped Chloe’s face in Domestic Science. Mrs Campbell – we called her Campbell-soup – sent me straight out of the lesson and to the headmistress’ office. I ignored her, went out of the school, and walked past the bus-stop, heading towards town. I already knew I wasn’t going home. I felt like a car with no brakes, heading down a dark road. Just the three clicks visible in the headlights, no idea what was coming up next. I knew I had to keep doing things to get myself through the night and there couldn’t be any thinking, any hesitating, I just had to floor it, or everything would catch up with me and blam.
It was a two-mile walk into town. I don’t really remember it. I walked fast and hard. Fast and hard. Fast and hard. The words gave me a rhythm to keep breathing to. My school-bag bumped against my hip. There were felt flowers on it that Chloe had sewn on, ages ago. When we were still friends, not the horrible broken thing we’d become, that I didn’t even have a name for. Not enemies. No. We were an accident. A natural disaster. Two people who think there’s a bridge between them and then find it’s gone, swept away by flood or landslide.
I stopped in front of a newsagent’s and went in.
“Can you give me a bag?” I asked the guy at the counter.
“Bag, ten pence.”
“Ten pence? For a plastic bag?”
“Got to keep up with Tescoes,” he shrugged.
I paid him ten pence. Then I thought sod it, so I said “Ten Benson, please.” Just like I’d heard the sixth-formers say. Casual – like I did it all the time.
He looked me up and down in my school uniform.
“You got to be joking, love.”
Okay, I thought. Next step: ditch the uniform. I hadn’t really wanted cigarettes, but now I was going to have them. What did he know? How much older did I have to be? What else had to happen to me before I counted as an adult?
Outside, I took all my stuff out of my school bag, and put it into the plastic bag. Then I shoved my school bag, flowers and all, into the nearest bin, and walked on.

In town, I headed straight for the Bull Ring. I’d never shoplifted before, but I was ready for it now. I decided to go to a night-club as soon as possible, after all, I couldn’t keep wandering round the streets all night. Lots of people in my class went clubbing. I knew the bouncers didn’t care how old you were. But I couldn’t be blatant, either. I had to get some make-up on my face, get some proper clothes. Look like I was there for fun, and not just so I didn’t have to think about the future or the past. Also, my school uniform felt dirty, even though it wasn’t. I’d spent too much time in it, or something. I wanted to shed my skin.
I went to Selfridges, which with hindsight was stupid, because they have proper security guards. I went to the cosmetics counter in the Top Shop bit, and looked at the make-up. I couldn’t think what to take. I looked over my shoulder once and then I took a Red Corvette lipstick and a Dark Goddess mascara and dropped them in my blazer pocket. Easy. I didn’t even feel guilty. I looked round again and there was a man in a suit with an ear-piece, staring right at me.
My heart started thumping so fast I thought I’d die. I made myself walk casually away from the cosmetics, towards the clothes. I flicked through tops: brights that would suit me, florals that would suit Chloe. If I put them back can I still get arrested? But I’ll look so stupid. I’d rather be arrested! The girl at the counter was looking at me. I couldn’t work out if they’d seen me or just thought I looked suspicious. Oh God, I don’t want to get arrested. Mum will go mad.
I picked out a random top and took it over to the girl at the counter. It wasn’t something I’d normally wear, but I didn’t care. I wanted to look different. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be someone else. I didn’t know who else. Just not me.
“Have you got this in a twelve?”
I couldn’t believe my voice didn’t shake. That’s what flooring it does for you. No time to panic. No time to think.
She said she’d have a look. That put her out of the way, in the back. I stood there not knowing whether to make a run for it past the guard or what. But what I did was march into the changing room, still carrying the top. I shut myself in a cubicle and took the make-up out of my pocket. I unwrapped it quickly and used it. I coloured my lips solid red. I added the mascara, hand almost shaking but not quite. That was all I wanted the make-up for, anyway, to look not like me. Then I dumped them in the corner and walked out, carrying the top.
The girl was talking to the security guard. When she saw me at the counter she came over, looking grim.
“This, please,” I said, shoving the top over to her.
She snatched it off me and scanned it without making eye contact. I stared right at her bowed head, glad of someone to hate, thinking Bitch, bitch, bitch. I wanted her to look up and blink when she met my gaze. I wanted her to see she’d met someone angrier than herself. I wanted to ask me if I was okay, so I could scream at her No, I’m not! I wanted to lean over and tell her I was heading too fast down a dark road with no brakes. I wanted her to feel sorry for me. I wanted her to respect me.
She said “That’s twenty-five pounds.”
I paid. That left a tenner in my account. Use it well, Joo Russell, I thought, walking out of Selfridges.
The guard didn’t stop me.

I got changed in the Bullring loos. My school skirt was fine, you can have any skirt you want so long as it’s black, and mine was perfectly acceptable in a club, if I rolled it up a bit. I took my tights off, they looked too schooly, and stuck my tie in my bag. I ran the cold tap and stuck my hands under it. Chloe-slapping hands. I ran the cold tap on them until they felt like someone else’s. I splashed cold water on my cheeks.
I was standing there, staring at myself in the mirror and trying to look through my eyes, into my head, my thoughts, when someone behind me said: “Joo? It is you, isn’t it?”