The boy breathed as stealthily as his pounding heart allowed him. The house was silent now, but you never knew. And you certainly didn’t want to draw her on you for an encore. If she was woken from the normally fitful beginnings of her drunken slumber by a sniffle, an intake of breath or the creak of a bedspring, second helpings could be worse than the main course. No, best give her ten, fifteen minutes. Then you could think about clearing your throat or moving around a bit. The boy lay there in his comfortless bed, rigid with alertness, staring up at the ceiling of his bedroom which was half-lit by the orange glow from the landing light sneaking in his ever so slightly open door (no closed doors in this house). He hated that orange landing light. Its being on meant only one thing — that she was on the warpath. It was enough for the click of the latch of the front door to sound and the odious orange light to snap on for the boy to break into a cold, tingly sweat, a fearful, tremulous hypervigilance and for the prayer to no god in particular to start playback in his numb head: “Oh, please just make her go to bed straight off tonight. Oh, please. Oh, please. Oh, please.” It was called a conditioned reflex. He had learned about it in biology. A Russian man called Pavlov had shown that you could make dogs salivate by ringing a bell if you taught them to associate the sound with food. The boy imagined himself to be like one of Pavlov’s dogs, except instead of saliva it was fear, sweat and crawling skin; instead of food it was his mother’s drunken rages and instead of a bell it was that bloody landing light.
He sneaks a glance over at the clock radio on the locker to the left of his bed. “03:14,” glow its red numbers — crude, garish, matchstick stubs of light. I’ll give it till half-past, he thinks, and lies there corpse-still, looking into the shadows and listening — a state he calls Yellow Alert, as opposed to Orange Alert when she is downstairs shouting and pulling the place apart, or Red Alert which means she is coming up the stairs for him or his brother or his father.
Tonight had been mostly Orange Alert. A couple of hours of chair-banging, press-slamming, glass-clinking and ashtray-dropping. There’d been a lot of slamming of the back door; the poor dog had been chased out into the garden a few times to do wee-wees. The boy had heard its whines as it pawed the door and pleaded to be allowed back in. Although she did tend to torment the poor dog when she was on the warpath, most of it was inadvertent. She never shouted at or beat it, no matter how mad- or mean-drunk she was. The dog was probably the only living creature in the house immune from her post-pub attentions. And it got scraps from her sandwich-making exploits to boot.
03:30. The boy slides out of bed as ponderously as golden syrup from the sticky green can in the press in the kitchen. You didn’t want to make noise at this stage and squander all the silence of the last half hour. He knew every squeak and creak the bed and floorboards were capable of making and how to avoid their treachery — ninja knowledge. Not so much tip-toeing as slow-motion stretching, shifting the weight of his body from one foot to the other, the boy reaches his pile of clothes on the study desk near the window and swiftly and silently dresses, careful to mute the belt buckle with his palm as he pulls his trousers on. He was a true pro at this stage. Down the stairs, making the banister take his weight, stepping as close as possible to where the steps met the sides and avoiding the few wonky, rattly boards. On the bottom step, he delicately turns off the landing light and breathes an extended sigh of relief.
“Stand down, men! Code green!” he says in his head, using a Marine sergeant’s voice. “But we’re still not out of the woods yet. Mind how you go!”
Illuminated by the sodium streetlight fractured by the frosted glass of the front door, he gathers his boots and coat from the hallway closet and moves operations into the kitchen.
“It’s a warzone in here, men!” GI Joe says in his head.
“A bloody mess,” says his real voice.
Even in the kitchen’s semi-darkness he can see that his mother has had a real go at tearing the place apart. He purposefully ignores the aftershock of her clumsy, drunken, unfocused anger. There’d be time enough for studying it in the morning and for the usual clean-up he performs before she and his father surface, sometime in the late afternoon. The dog is asleep. He goes over to her basket by the range, gently pats her behind one of her long, woolly ears and whispers: “Poor oul’ craythur. Sorry about all this. You’re on the front line down here. Every night lately.” He sits down beside her, pulls on his boots and laces them up.
“Bloody Christmas,” he whispers.
He catches a whiff of horseradish and salami breath from the lightly-snoring spaniel and smiles ruefully as he buttons his coat. On his way to the back door, picking his way carefully through the detritus of his mother’s midnight feast, after-hours drinking and ranting and raving, he spots something near the breadboard, beside an open tub of dairy spread — his mother’s cigarettes and lighter.
“They’re mine now!”
The back door is unlocked and opened soundlessly and the boy walks out into the mid-winter night.