WARNING: contains references to drug use
Vivienne turned the engine off and kept her hands firmly on the steering wheel. Her eyes were scanning the views through the windscreen; a concrete yard, a tall, dirty white building cut against the cloudy February sky. It was a desolate, depressive place and looked even more miserable after an early morning three hour drive.
“Here we are, then.” Next to her, Alex looked up at the tower block ahead of them. “I still can’t believe we drove all this way.”
“Please, Alex, don’t start again.” Vivienne huffed. “I didn’t ask you to come with me.”
“You think I would let you drive to a place like this on your own?” Alex objected, a slightly impatient tone hinting at his annoyance. “You don’t know what you’re going to find, with his lifestyle.”
“Well, thank you very much for your concern.” Vivienne interrupted him. “But if you’re going to start your preaching and judgemental speeches again, you can wait here.”
Alex smiled. “Calm down, Viv. You have to agree with me that it’s a bit yielding, dropping everything at half five in the morning and run to someone that had cut you out of his life for four years. I don’t think that I would be quite so accommodating.”
“Well, no, you wouldn’t, would you?” Vivienne snapped. “Because you don’t know what it’s like to have someone you love going missing and spend every single day wondering whether they’re dead or alive, if you’ll ever see them again.”
“Someone who made your life a misery, you should add, not to mention your parents’.”
“Whatever.” Vivienne recovered her bag from the back seat and opened the car door. “You can think what you like, but he’s still my little brother and if he cries to me over the phone asking for help, I’m not going to ignore him, no matter if he waited four days or four years to do so!’ She got out and slammed the door with some force.
“Viv…” Alex sighed and followed her.
“And if you cannot see that,” she attacked him again when he emerged from the Clio, “if you cannot be supportive for a change, well, then you can-”
Alex had walked to her and put his arm around her shoulders. “Viv.” He shook her gently. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
Vivienne scrolled him off.
“Stop repeating yourself, then.” She scolded him one last time, though in her heart she was grateful and relieved he had followed her.
When the phone had rung at dawn, she could not help but hoping against her will. Who else could ring at that time in the morning, reversing the call?
Yet, when Ryan’s voice had come through the receiver, she had hardly contained her shock.
She had waited for that phone call for four years.
Hundreds of questions had rushed to the front of her thoughts all at once and she could not line them up into an ordered sequence.
“Where are you?” was the one that came on top.
She had struggled to hear his words as he broke down.
“Sweetheart, don’t cry. Don’t cry…” She had kept repeating, the way she used to when they were children and he was scared or hurt.
She’d eased him and slowly got some answers, how he was and where and how to reach him.
“I’ll come over.” She’d tried to reassure him, but he’d grown more agitated.
“No, don’t come… Oh, shit! I don’t know why I called. I’m so fucked up, Viv. So fucked up! Don’t come. Forget it. Forget I called.”
He’d left her with the persistent tone of the ended call and the furious thumping of her heart, but before he had panicked and cut the conversation short, she’d managed to extract from him an address.
She’d run upstairs to get changed.
Still half asleep in bed, Alex had listened to her frantic briefing on the situation and watched her running from one corner of the room to another, gathering clothes and manically looking for bag, money, car keys.
He’d tried to dissuade her from leaving right from the start.
“Breathe, Viv,” he’d told her. “Think it through. Are you going to rush all the way to Brighton, to some obscure address you have no way of verifying? He probably was off his head.”
“He was lucid,” she shot back, “and desperate. I won’t abandon him.”
“Be reasonable. It’s quarter to six in the morning.”
“I’m going, Alex, and that’s final. You don’t have to come.”
But he had and now, in the shadow of the two tower blocks, with some menacing looking hooded youngsters hanging around by a small wall nearby, she was pleased to have him with her, all broad shouldered six foot-two of him.
She hooked her arm under his and sighed. “I just want to take him home.”
Her little brother. She might have been six years his senior, but even at sixteen, Ryan was already a good eight inches taller than her and if he didn’t want to follow, there was no way she could make him.
The address Ryan had given took them to the block on the left, into a dim lift that smelt of cigarette, beer and perspiration, all the way up to the ninth floor, along a narrow balcony, passing doors to different flats: 9A… 9B…
“9C… It’s here.”
They stopped and looked at each other.
Alex squeezed her hand.
“Don’t be too heartbroken if he’s not who he was any more,” he murmured.
She nodded and rang the bell once… twice…
A faint voice came from the other side. “Hold on… I’m coming…”
The door opened. “You took your time! I called you an hour ago… oh!”
Vivienne’s anxious eyes met the surprised face of a rather tall, masculine woman, wrapped in a silky dressing gown that looked too small for her… or him…
“Hello?” The giant stared back at them both, impatient, and Vivienne cleared her throat.
“Sorry to disturb you this time in the morning,” she began. “I’m looking for Ryan Murray. I was told he lives here.”
The tall woman studied her with suspicion.
“And you are…?”
“Vivienne Murray,” she hesitantly replied. “Ryan’s sister.”
The woman’s expression brightened and mellowed. “But of course you are,” she observed. “You look just like him.”
“So you know him, then?”
“I do… yes… he’s my lodger. I’m Lola.”
She offered her hand, but Vivienne didn’t shake it. Her attention had switched to the noises coming from inside the flat, a nasty, persistent cough and moans, like those of an injured animal.
She tried to look past Lola who was blocking the door frame with her bulky figure.
“Ryan?” She inquired. “Is that him?”
Lola stepped out and pulled the door ajar.
“You caught us at a bad time, darling.” She smiled, nervously. “Why don’t you come back in an hour or two?”
“Bad time? What you mean? He sounds sick. I want to see him now.”
“No you don’t, trust me.” Lola insisted. “Come back around half past ten. It’ll be better, then.”
“I’m not going.” Vivienne straightened up in all her height, which didn’t amount to much. Next to Lola, she looked small and fragile. Her eyes, however, were determined. “Ryan!” she called out, but there was no reply, only coughing. “He called me this morning.” She turned to Lola again. “He called me. He was asking for help.”
Lola took a deep breath.
“I’m telling you,” she warned Vivienne again, “you won’t like it.”
“I don’t care. I want to see him. I waited four years.”
“All right.” Lola gave in and opened the door.
Vivienne and Alex followed her in the small hall.
“I came home earlier this morning and found him slouched outside the door,” Lola explained as she led them to the other end of the flat. “I don’t know how he made it home. He’s in… a bit of a state.”
They finally entered the living room and Vivienne’s eyes caught site of the worn out sofa where Ryan laid.
He was thin, dirty and pale, his face battered, his eyes rolled up as he moaned and kicked out, shaken by a violent tremor.
Alex placed his hands over Vivienne’s shoulder.
“Ryan.” She gasped. She slipped from Alex’s grip and ran to her brother. “Ryan, sweetheart. It’s Viv, I’ve come…”
Ryan turned a vacuous gaze to her, a dribble at the corner of his mouth, but didn’t appear to recognise her.
“He needs his fix,” Lola’s voice echoed behind her.
Vivienne shook her head. “He’s injured… what happened to him?”
“I don’t know, darling. I found him like that. I guess he had some unpleasant encounter. It’s a jungle, you know, street life.”
Ryan coughed and cried and Vivienne placed her hand on his forehead.
“He’s sick too. He’s burning. He needs treatment. Have you called a doctor?”
“Treatment’s on its way,” Lola said. “In fact… I thought you were it.”
“I don’t mean… I mean… he needs to go to hospital.”
“That’s not going to do any good, right now, darling.” Lola shook her head. “Trust me. He’ll be another when treatment comes, which can’t be much longer, now.”
As if summoned by Lola’s words, the door bell rang again and Lola disappeared to carry out the transaction Vivienne imagined was taking place at the door.
She kept caressing Ryan’s hair, stuck with sweat to his forehead, her heart aching every time he cried, mad with cravings.
When Lola came back, she looked severely at Vivienne.
“I’ll take over now, darling,” she stated. “You and your boyfriend…”
"Husband.” Alex corrected her.
“… and your husband,” Lola reprised, “can wait in the kitchen. Make yourself some tea.”
Vivienne didn’t budge. “I’m not leaving him.”
Lola sighed. “You will, if you want to help him. I need to do this and you don’t want to be here.”
“You think I didn’t go through this before?” Vivienne insisted. “You think I haven’t done what you are doing?”
“Then you know you’d better leave me to it,” Lola insisted. “Just in case…”
“Just in case what?”
“Don’t make me say it, darling. It’s bad luck.”
Alex moved near her. “Come on, Viv.” He held her hand. “We’ll wait in the kitchen.”
“It’ll be over in a few minutes, I promise,” Lola said.
Reluctantly Vivienne followed Alex in the tiny, messy kitchen, her heart tight in her chest.
Stay with me, Ryan, she kept thinking. Stay with me.
Continues in Part Seven