The Seventh Apple - Part 2
The next morning we get a better idea of where we are. We go downstairs together, still holding hands. There’s a kitchen with tables and chairs. I think the furniture is second-hand. It’s bruised. The room smells of oatmeal. A kettle hisses on a worktop. There are a few women there, other lodgers I guess. They eat while seven children hide under the table legs. They play with toys which like the table were loved once. Faye comes in and waves us to a table. The other women smile sympathetically as we sit.
She sits us down to explain. This is a shelter for families that have been broken. Some of the women have the tell-tale marks on their face. I recognise them because I have them too. I doubt they all got them from walking into doors. I never knew this place existed before, but that’s because its top secret, Faye says. The contact number is guarded by charities and even the police, and given only to those who need it; who need somewhere neutral to go, when things at home become unbearable. I wonder how Mum managed to get hold of it, seeing as she was rarely allowed outside without my Stepfather. Faye explains that this lodging house is only temporary, though we are welcome to stay until we can make other arrangements. I hope we can move far away, just the two of us.
Faye continues to tell Mum about the services they can help her with, types of benefits and housing and employment. I glance around at the bare ceiling. The daylight is bouncing off the white walls and I’m finding it a little too bright.
I jump and turn around. A boy stands in front of me, holding the kettle and two mugs. He’s older than the other children, much closer to my age.
“Would you like some tea?”
Mum smiles softly, “Yes, thank you.” I nod. He puts down one mug with his right hand, then goes to get the other again with the same hand. He retrieves the kettle and finally pours it. He keeps his left hand hidden at his side. He reaches for a chair and sits beside me.
“Hello,” he repeats.
“Hi,” I whisper. My stomach gurgles and I blush. I can already feel the tea filling up my body with a taste and warmth I haven’t experienced in a long time. It’s sweet, just how I used to like it.
He has a gentle expression and a freckled face. His eyes are blue and they match a light blue t-shirt he wears. His hair is a dusty blonde colour. He rests his head in his palm. The other hand remains firmly down below the table’s edge, “You just got here, right?”
“I’m Ashley,” he holds out his right hand for me to take, “Ashley Cinders. What’s your name?”
“Snow,” I whisper and hesitate. I guess now that Mum is going by her maiden name I should too. My face blushes brighter, “Snow… White.”
Ashley smirks but not in an unkind way. “Cool,” he replies. No one’s ever thought it ‘cool’ before. The kettle screams and he leaps to attention. “I’ll get it!” I twist around the watch him. His left hand doesn’t move. I can only see above the elbow.
Faye turns her attention to me. “It’s good to have you here, actually. Most of the children who come here are very much younger than you two,” she indicates over to the plastic trikes and soft toys that are overflowing from a toy box. “Ashley, dear, leave that for a moment. Why don’t you show Snow around?”
Ashley looks over his shoulder, “Ok. Come on, Snow.” He leads me out into the tight corridor. I walk to his right. There’s another toy room with more kids playing inside. I can see them crouching inside a wendy house. For a moment I wish I could fit in there too. They recognise Ashley. He promises to play with them later, and we leave.
“They seem to like you,” I say once we’re back in the corridor. I get the sense that in a place like this that’s quite a significant thing.
Ashley gives a tiny chuckle, “Yeah, I’ve been here a while. Longer than most.” He points me into the room with the humming television. It’s switched on to a children’s channel but no one is there to watch it. I walk behind the battered sofa to a shelf of VHS tapes. “We’ve got some DVDs too,” he adds, “but we’re still waiting to get a player.” The TV looks old and square, a remnant from the eighties.
Ashley briefly takes me into a room just inside the wooden front door. It has a table and a load of box shelves. “This is where people come to leave stuff with us,” he explains, leaning on the door so I can pass. “Everything you see around you is brought here by other people. They donate things. There’s lots for the children, clothes, stuff for the shower, that kind of thing. Faye and the girls make packs for everyone who come here, just to help them along a bit. They give the kids a toy each to keep, so they feel more comfortable.”
I nod again. I didn’t arrive with anything myself, except my Dad’s photograph. I can deal with that. Most of my toys went when I got old enough not to care, but I understand what leaving them behind must be like for the really little ones.
Ashley hesitates, “Would you like to see my room?”
Ashley’s room is the most lived-in room in the entire building. The rest of it feels just like what it is, purely temporary, a boarding house or hotel running on whatever it can find. Nothing belongs to anyone. The colours are safe and weak. Ashley takes me past our room and up the stairs to the attic door. “This is where I live,” he beams and he lets me inside. The roof slopes downwards, the peak in the centre is the easiest place to stand. The walls are painted duck egg blue, so I assume he must have chosen it himself. He has a silver lampshade and books that are his own in a tiny bedside bookshelf. He likes art. He has two large posters on the slanting roof, and they’re both prints; one of Van Gogh’s Starry Night that I know from school books, and the other is of an ocean with floating islands in the sky. Ashley says it’s a Roger Dean painting.
There’s only one thing that’s odd about this teenage boy’s room. Everything is spotless. The floor is perfectly tidy. He’s arranged all his trinkets to be in excellent order. I knew a neighbour once who had something called OCD. She used to spend ages moving her furniture through the house because it never felt right to her, a fact that drove her mental. Ashley sits down on his bed and as he does I at last see his left hand. I had thought it was cut off half way down but I was wrong. It is there, but it’s severely disfigured. It curls inwards. His skin is scarred and his fingers are fused to one another. I don’t think he can move them at all. I don’t want to hurt him by staring, but he already knows I am. He runs his good hand over it and puts on a brave smile, “Weird, right?” he mutters.
“What happened to it?” I sit.
He gazes down at it for a long while, “It was my fault. I was being clumsy, and hands and boiling water don’t mix.”
I’ve lied enough about injures to know that’s not the full story, but I don’t push it, “So you live up here?”
“I’ve been here three years now,” he nods, glad to move on to something else. “Faye is my foster mum. She adopted me. Her room is just along from yours. She started this place.” He glances back at his damaged hand for a second and then says, “I started just like you.”
He bits his lip and lets his eyes meet mine, “How much do you…?”
“Know? Just little things I got from what your mum was saying. Faye never gossips. Living here you learn how to be an excellent secret keeper. In a way it’s like playing a huge game of hide and seek, only I don’t have to hide anymore,” Ashley takes a pause. He’s staring at me like he’s ready to give a big confession. I don’t tell him not to. “Your mum seems like a nice lady. My Mother wasn’t so much. Not at all, really. She could be pretty… extreme.” The twisted hand rests in his lap. “Someone sent Faye to see us, out of the blue. One day after school she came to pick me up and we didn’t go home. I was in a children’s home for a while, which was ok. Faye still came to visit until she decided she wanted me to stay with her. She set up this house and I’ve been here since. So that’s my story.”
“My Stepfather wants to kill me,” I admit.
Ashley frowns, “Kill you?”
“With poisoned apples,” it comes out of my mouth so calmly. Ashley’s frown begins to disappear. His mouth starts to smile. “I guess he has a sense of humour after all,” I add. Ashley giggles nervously into his ruined hand.