They came our way because the school found Rose stealing food. She was 11, Aaron 8. When they turned up, she looked ill and he looked scared. When we washed their clothes, their pockets were filled with palmed nuggets of chocolate, dusty raisins, lint flecked apple slices.
They lived with us for five years. We gave them birthday parties, and holidays to the caravan. We learned to lock the food cupboards. They stayed skinny, like anything they ate just went to fill the hole from years ago. At dinner, they sat close to each other. When Aaron cried, Rose held his temples and whispered in his ear. When Rose cried, Aaron bit.
When Rose smiled, it lacked balance, like happiness was a cliff you might fall over.
At night, they loved stories, even as they got older. They sat in the gloom, hunched, spiderlimbed. Their eyes like pools.
Red riding hood. Goldilocks. Hansel and Gretel. Children stealing food, carrying food, starving. It got so I was embarrassed to begin, but they were hungry for it. Woods and caves, wolves and trolls. Green grass tempting the Billy-Goats, the gingerbread man fleeing the fox.
Aaron always asked, “And then what?”
“The Billy Goats Gruff lived in the green field and enjoyed the sweet fresh grass.”
“And then what?”
Rose behind him, taller, stiller. Her hand on his knee, the fingers pressing in.
“And then what?”
“They ate the grass, I suppose.”
Rose smiled, a shy smile at the silliness of a world that could tell a story like that.
When Rose was fourteen, her limbs stretched. She stayed thin, but her hips widened enough to make her sway as she walked. I saw men glance at her, then stare.
In another year they found her. That’s how they described it – finding her, like she’d been lost, and they’d been looking for her, just her, for all these years. They said she was a natural. They were right. She certainly didn’t try to be beautiful – it must have come by nature, like a tooth.
The scout from the agency had tea with us. Her name was Gussy, or so she said. She was a wide-faced woman, squashy-featured, like she’d been stung evenly all over. She said she’d act like a parent to Rose. She said she knew it seemed like a fairytale.
When she looked at Rose her voice faltered. I think she wanted her to say more, or to do more.
“You’ll have everything you could ever want,” she said.
Rose said nothing.
I talked to her when Gussy was gone. I asked if she was excited.
“Yes,” she said.
She didn’t sound excited. Her face was blank, her eyes wide, already a model. Then she looked down, and like an optical illusion she was a kid again. Skinny, greasy skinned.
“Are you sure?”
She looked up again, and shrugged.
Rose stayed with us, but she often wasn’t at home. We saw her on the covers of magazines, on billboards. We saw her skin gleam, her cheekbones sharp, her ribs, her hips. Sometimes I stared at her smooth, strange face and wondered why I was staring. When I stopped, I could still feel the ache of her hunger.
Aaron stayed too. He stretched too, but in the wrong ways. He grew asymmetrically, shoulders off-kilter, a tree in the wind. Any trousers we bought him were too short, and yet bunched baggily at his waist.
At school, he spent his lunchbreaks standing in the corridor near the staff room.
We’ve fostered sixteen children. Seven didn’t stay more than a couple of weeks. Another six stayed several months, up to a year. Rose and Aaron were our longest, but in the middle of their stay, after Rose had been spotted, we took on Jack.
Bullet-faced, he moved with a lick of the animal. His legs bowed sturdy, his arms hung ready. He was fourteen, slight and lean, but the wiry cords of adult muscle knotted his shoulders.
Jack liked Aaron. He liked him like a dog likes a bone.
Where we live isn’t a city, but it isn’t countryside that you’d recognise. There are the straight weedy lines of old canals, the neat gravel of railway sidings. The path to school runs between a wood bursting with spring on one side, and a chainlink fence on the other. The smells are the sharp tones of metal and green, the itchy fug of nettles and dog-shit, the rub of thin dusty soil.
The boys kick things as they walk. I can see them there. Aaron with one hand trailing against the fence, Jack swinging a stick at the branches. They walked there and back every day, and it took them longer each time. I can see their feet trailing in the dirt. I can see the slouch and roll of Jack, shoulders up against the world, and the prickle of glee as he thinks of something to make Aaron do.
Throw that bottle
See if you can piss on the blackberries
Climb the fence
On the other side of the fence is a timberyard. They jump on offcuts, kick the splinters. They hide when a forklift beeps past, behind a square stacked pile, beside a discarded newspaper.
Aaron twists pages. Stuffs them under the pile. Lights it.
Rose had been away when Jack came. She was fifteen. They had her advertising spot cream. But Jack knew her from Aaron’s pictures. Long limbed, glossy, flawless, bright with aspiration. Cinderella in a short skirt. Aaron stuck every shoot she did to his wall. Soon after Jack came, we saw there were gaps, then the gaps got bigger. Jack kept the pictures he took under his bed.
He had pornography as well, of course.
When she came back, and he saw her, his eyes gleamed. When you look after teenagers, you know that look. You know lots of things – the stale smells, the stiff socks, the sour reek of bodies growing into themselves. The muttered slang of parts they’ve touched, listed fondly like collectables. If you’re wise you know there’s not much you can do about it.
We have rules, of course. But what’s a rule when you’re fifteen?
Rose wasn’t interested. But that didn’t mean she said no.
She let him do things to her – we all knew that because he said. Eventually we asked for him to be removed. Aaron cried for a day.
In the summer, the heat settles in pools, caught between trees and the brick walls of warehouses. If you go higher, you feel the breeze, but no one goes higher. By the canal, white streaks trail across the still water. Once, an eight year old who was with us for a fortnight found a dog down there, head hacked off, coat burnt, a bottle rammed up its arse.
In July, after school had finished, Aaron spent most of his time down there. Rose was away, in the outside world, caught behind glossy paper. We hadn’t got anyone new after Jack.
I don’t know what Aaron did there. I can guess. I imagine he broke things, threw stones in the canal. Played games. He had something closed and strange in him. Walking down the street he often veered left for no reason. I imagine him there, by the canal, moving crabwise to his own logic.
I know that sometimes he met Jack. I know because later, when the police brought him in, he said he’d been seeing him there for weeks. I met them down at the station. He was sobbing, gulping sobs of horror while the police officer stood smilingly beside him. They were lovely about it, but Aaron was broken with fear.
I wasn’t surprised at what he’d done. He’d stolen things all his life. I was surprised how afraid he was.
The next time Rose returned, later that month, was the last time. Two weeks later, it was all over, most of it a hundred miles from us. Starting with the day down by the canal, the heat of it, the green fever of still stale water, and ending on Gussy’s kitchen floor.
Jack and Aaron, and Rose. Where other kids remember a snatch of nursery rhyme, or a taste of ice cream, or the feel of the sun on their necks at the beach, these three lived with the memory of a sudden gag of violence and the taint of hunger. Something inside was jangled. You press a key, and a very different note comes.
That day, as they walk along the loose slabs of the towpath, the light touches Rose’s skin with gold. She smiles, giddy and strange.
Joy catches at Jack’s throat, and shakes like him like a dog shakes a rat.
And Aaron. Thin like the ghost of himself, a frame of bones and aches and fear. What he feels for Jack must be love, because it twists like starvation in his gut.
The slabs shift, clunk a dull echo over the still, hidden water beneath.
“They give me eclairs,” says Rose. “You wait while they find the clothes, and you get all sorts.”
The two boys walk.
“You can ask for anything. She gets it all.”
“Shortbread?” says Aaron.
Jack wants to fuck. Desire has him cornered, and he won’t get out without a fight.
“Give me a blowjob,” says Jack.
Aaron cracks his skull with a rock.
In the still of it, after, I imagine them standing over him. Standing side by side, closer than normal people might. Rose with her weight on one foot, her hip jutting out. Aaron, his clothes loose and strange on him. I know they wouldn’t have screamed, or run. I know they would have stopped, and waited, and thought.
Gussy survived. I spoke to her at the trial. Her puffy face sagged, and this time when she spoke I noticed that her teeth were spaced oddly in her fleshy mouth, as if they’d been placed there individually.
“They came at night.”
At night. In the slow evening warmth. Running from the bus. Aaron and Rose. Trailing crumbs.
“I always told her, if she needed anything, to come.”
She was old, now. Her eyebrows overplucked to a bald sheen over ruckled skin. A long scar with a neat corner across her forehead, like a giant staple.
“She was so quiet before.”
Under the streetlights, bright, yellow, strange. Giddy with death. The thing held inside for so long, out and dead on the towpath.
Jack wasn’t the first wolf. But he was the first wolf they’d killed.
And in Gussy’s soft house, her warm house, where food piled high and comfort lay in piles like money, two rake-thin starvelings gorged.
“They rang the bell. When they came in I thought they were fine.”
Broken plates, thrown cushions, cracked screens. Torn pictures, smashed jam. Prancing like goblins over Gussy’s screams, until the coiled beauty of Rose held her in the oven and slammed the door against her head, again and again until the seam split and blood ran over her feet.
Gussy stared at me, her wet, greedy eyes dimmed by fear.
I still have a magazine. I see Rose, her sharp cheekbones, her eyes, huge and bold. Her mouth just open, and the blank of the model stamped over her. I think of shampoo, and spot cream, and trainers, and chocolate, and phones, and a cute little strappy dress, and the sheer joy of breaking everything you could ever want.
Sammy Wright is Vice Principal of a large secondary school in Sunderland. He sits on the Social Mobility Commission, and is their lead for Schools and HE. His stories have been published in a variety of places, by Galley Beggar, Tangent and Tartaruga among others, as well as winning the Tom Gallon Trust Award and being longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award. In 2020 he was selected to feature in Dead Ink’s anthology Test Signal, due out in summer 2021, and he won the Northern Book Prize with his first novel ‘Fit’ (based in part on characters from ‘Rose’) due to be published in October 2021 by And Other Stories. Twitter: @SamuelWright78
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