As Yellow as Yellow
Joe Knapp, aged eleven, had been missing for four hours. His mother, incoherent, clutching a cushion to her chest, was describing his school clothes and bag. Two-year-old Lawrence sat on the floor watching cartoons as his mother rocked and wailed on the sofa. The woman police constable wrote mother held cushion, not toddler sibling in her notes. She watched her shift partner trying to get some sensible answers from the woman. Half the time it was the parents who did it. The desk sergeant wouldnt have bothered so much with this call if Joes father, Aaron, hadnt had such an awesome reputation for violence. Hed tried to kill his first wife although shed refused to bring charges; he’d half killed several compatriots in pub brawls. Legend had it that Aaron had put a male police constable in hospital for two months after resisting arrest when drunk and disorderly. But it seemed Aaron no longer lived here, so where was the kid?
* * *
Joe had seen Dad hurt Mum. He hadnt just hit her, although there was plenty of that. Once hed stamped on her feet; one-two, one-two, Dads booted foot coming down on her bare toes. Joe had been in the room that time. Usually though, it happened when he and the baby were in bed; Lawrence asleep in his cot, sucking his dummy raptly. Hed hear the growls, the whimpers, and then the blows. After a while he would hear the tap running in the bathroom as his mum cleaned herself up.
He couldnt remember when it had started, but it hadnt always been like this. He wasnt scared for himself. Dad had never hit him. These days he couldnt sleep until his parents came to bed—he had to be sure it was over before he could relax. Then, one night, lying awake and listening, it had become too much to ignore. It wasnt bravery that drove him downstairs but a long-held dreadful anticipation. He had to know what would happen when he tried to stop them. He stuffed his feet into trainers, pulled on a sweatshirt over his pyjamas, and walked slowly downstairs. From the bottom of the dark stairs he could see yellow kitchen light throwing a golden rectangle down the hall to him. He entered it, walking along the light, not looking up until he stood in the doorway of the kitchen.
His mother had her hands up, trying to ward off his fathers right hand. Dad brushed aside her guard and slapped her face again and again; spit flew from her lips and her eyes were closed.
Stop it, Joe said, walking up to them on shaking legs. He gazed up at his dad, whose arm, frozen in mid-slap, made a truncated arc backwards, as though readying the next blow, before dropping to his side. Dad looked down at Joe. The complex griefs and furies evident in his dad’s face scared the boy more than any physical threat. There was a war under his fathers skin.
Mum said, Oh Joe, oh Joe, oh Joe, on a breathy rising note. It could have been, Oh no—it was hard to tell what her puffy lips were saying. Joe looked at her too, her hands now gripping the kitchen unit behind her. She was a whimper made flesh.
He turned slowly, feeling the invisible arc of the unstruck blow hanging over his head, and walked back through the golden rectangle, up the dark stairs and into the bedroom. Lawrence still slept. Joe sat on the bed, shaking with cold and with older, unnameable pains. Nobody came to him.
After a while he took off his shoes and got back into bed.
* * *
So what happened with the first wife then? asked the policewoman as they made their way down from the fifth floor flat.
Half strangled her, then started kicking her to death. Hed have done it too, if their daughter—shed be in her late teens now—hadnt come in and stopped him. Hes a hell of a wife beater and brawler but it seems he never lays a finger on the kids.
The policewoman shivered at the admiring tone in her colleagues voice.
So what about this Joe then? she pursued the issue stolidly.
Its odd. Hes not one of our regular runaways and its hard to imagine whod be stupid enough to lay hands on one of Aarons kids. The male constable paused for a second on the concrete stairs, trying to guess the outcome of this Missing Person call. Its bloody odd.
* * *
The next day, Joe woke up still wearing the sweatshirt. When he came home from school, Dad was gone. He never came back. Dad was living with Sheena now, in a little flat about a mile away. Sheena was his half-sister; she was nineteen and had a baby of her own called Tate. Two or three times a week, Dad would turn up outside the school and take Joe back to Sheenas for tea.
One morning he slopped milk over the edge of his cereal bowl as he walked to his seat and his mother slapped his head. Tears distorted his vision; it was shock rather than pain that made his eyes brim over. His mum grabbed him, knocking the bowl away and hugging him tight as she knelt beside him, Sorry, sorry, Joe, I dont know why I did that, sorry, sorry. The hug was as unexpected as the slap and almost as painful. Her fingers dug into his shoulders and her head banged on his collarbone as she twisted him to and fro in her remorse.
After that it happened every few days. He would do something and she would slap him. It never hurt much and it was always followed by intense and violent affection; hugs, kisses, brisk rubs of his short hair. He tolerated it for a month or so, but one day as she lifted her hand, he brought up his arm to stop her. Dont, he said. Youve got to stop it. His mum looked at him and then looked at her arm in the air. It hung over him just like Dads had done. She nodded fiercely and walked over to the window, hugging herself. When hed finished breakfast and got his bag for school, she was still there. Bye then, he said. She just nodded again.
* * *
If anythings happened to him... Joes father didnt bother to finish the sentence. The degree of cooperation he was giving was unprecedented. Not only had he let two police officers into his home, he’d also given them mugs of tea. Tate cried and the policewoman followed Sheena as she went to fetch him—it was a chance to check out the flat.
Tell me about Joe, the policewoman suggested, as Sheena laid Tate on the changing mat and began to strip off his sleep-suit.
Not much to tell, Sheena said. Nice kid. Put it this way, Id have left Tate with him while I ran down to the shop. She grabbed a nappy and slid it under the baby. Ill tell you this though, if somethings happened to him, Dads gonna go mad.
Dad? Mr. Knapps your...? The policewoman realised shed misunderstood the whole setup, saw Sheenas bitter amusement, and stopped, silent. There was only one way to rescue the situation. Im sorry, she said, I didnt realise you were related, but I should have worked it out. I knew he had a grownup daughter. I shouldnt have assumed you were his new girlfriend.
Sall right, muttered Sheena. Hes only here temporary like. My ex—Tates dad—was being a bit of a problem, but hes stopped now my dads here.
The policewoman nodded. What else was there to do? Cautioning Sheena against taking the law into her own hands was hardly likely to help, particularly when her half-brother had just gone missing.
So where do you think Joe is? she asked.
I dont know. Its not like him. I know everybody always says that but Joes like me, a homebody, hed not roam, Im sure of that. Sheena fastened the poppers on Tates clean dungarees and picked him up. I cant say that I feel good about it, you know? Joes not a survivor. She looked up at the policewoman. Hes not like Dad, if thats what youre asking.
* * *
With Dad gone and Mum not hitting him anymore, Joe thought he might be able to sleep again, but he couldnt. Every night he lay awake, listening to Lawrences breathing and baby farts. There was something wrong with Lawrence. Joe hadnt been sure before he started going to Sheenas, but he was now. Tate was younger but could say lots of words and walk across the room. Lawrence could only say Ma, Da, Joe, and juice, and he still crawled everywhere. Most days, when he came home from school, Lawrence was in the playpen, watching cartoons through the bars. Joe would lift him out and sit him on his lap. As long as he had his dummy, the baby was content. He was heavy and he would soon make Joes legs go numb, then pins and needles would come. Joe made himself not move and the pains went away after a while. Lawrence never moved. He sat where you put him, self-centred and mute.
Joe didnt know what to do. He needed new trainers. Hed been telling Mum for weeks, but it was a long time since shed been further from the flat than the little Alldays supermarket just across the road. He thought about saving up the pound she gave him each day to buy lunch, but when it came to it, he was usually too hungry not to eat. Today, hed kept the pound nearly all the way home, walking past the news agents and mini-markets where only two kids were allowed in at a time and you had to leave your schoolbag by the door. At the top of the hill was a garage and the garage had a coffee machine. He could smell the hot steaminess of coffee for a long way before he got level with it—it was too much to bear. He went in and grabbed a packet of crisps; it didnt matter which, they all tasted the same, and then stood next to the coffee machine, deciding between cappuccino and latte. He took four packets of sugar and put them in his pocket, then poured two more into the coffee when it had finished frothing out of the nozzle. He needed two hands to carry the cup and he could never get the lid on properly, so he just rested it on top of the cup and held the crisp packet in his teeth until he got to the counter. The man on duty snapped the lid on the coffee, saying, onepoundtwentynine as one big word.
That had used up todays pound and some of what hed saved from yesterday.
He carried the coffee carefully outside and put it on the ground while he tucked the crisps into his bag. He turned towards the playing fields—he wanted to sit and savour his coffee without being distracted by Mum and Lawrence. As he hobbled along, the too-small trainers snatching at his toes with vicious nips, he poured the sugar through the little hole in the lid. By the time he got to the tennis court the sugar would be dissolved. He loved coffee, but Mum only drank tea.
He set down the cup on the edge of the tennis court, then pulled the crisps from his bag. He hadnt really planned to come this far and even if he ran back home, hed be late, and Mum would be upset. He coveted a mobile phone for times like this, but knew he wouldnt get one. He couldnt even get new shoes. He couldnt run home either, in these. He sipped the coffee, eyes closed. There must be things he could do. He could tell Dad about the shoes, but Dad hadnt been to the flat since the day hed left. Joe didnt want to give him any reason to raise that arm again. He kept telling Mum, but she didnt seem to take it in anymore. Hed tried opening her purse several times, but she never carried more than a couple of pounds in it. Hed skipped school one afternoon and tried the Oxfam shop on Trinity Road, but theyd had nothing in his size and the woman in there had given him long, narrow looks. She knew he should have been in school. He hadnt dared do it again.
He thought about the craft knives at school—they were just thin plastic handles with even skinnier blades in them. Half the blades were dull and chipped, so they tore the paper when you tried to cut it, but if you got a new one, it was like a wonderful insect in your hand. It was slim and sharp and as yellow as—yellow. Joe struggled to think of something the same colour as those handles, but he couldnt. A new craft knife was the yellowest thing hed ever seen. Perhaps, next time they did art, he could get one of the new knives and use it to slice open the tops of his trainers so that his toes could poke through. He imagined it and giggled.
He slurped the last of the coffee, thick with syrupy sugar grains. It was time to go home. But he didnt. He sat there, propped up on his school bag and ate his crisps slowly. Still he didnt go home. He was content with sitting, listening to the crows, and feeling his toes throb. Hed thought about running away before, but hed never thought about just not going home. Now it seemed like an option. Staying here.
* * *
The policewoman stood, frustrated, in the middle of the housing estate. Theres just nothing to work with, no reason for him to have disappeared like this. What makes a nice kid like Joe just vanish? Its normally the parents, you know that.
Her colleague shrugged. Yeah, but not this time. Aarons a bastard to women but he loves his kids. Who knows? The lads probably got some crazy idea in his head and run off to see the world. All we can hope is that he comes back soon. Its getting dark. Ten to one hell be home by tea-time.
* * *
Joe saw the car pull up on the far side of the tennis court and the man walk towards him. Joe sat still, but the crows flew away. The man hunched down beside him. After a while he said, You look cold. It wasnt a question, so Joe didnt bother to answer. He was cold, but the cold had a kind of restfulness to it that was good. He thought he could probably sleep here, for a while at least. The stranger gazed at the broken tarmac of the tennis court and then at the sinking sun. Would you like to go for a ride? he asked. Joe shrugged. We could go to the Little Chef on the motorway, get some pancakes and coffee. What do you think?
Joe shrugged again. Im tired, he said.
You can sleep in the car. Its very comfortable.
Joe looked at him. I cant sleep at home, he said.
Well, give it a try then, in the car? suggested the man. Joe nodded.
And my feet hurt, Joe confided, jutting his chin towards the trainers.
The great thing about a car, said the man, is you dont need your shoes on, because youre not walking.
Joe nodded again. There was logic to this. He stood up, wincing a little at the pain in his toes, and shouldered his bag. He started to walk towards the car. He noticed that the man stood too, and he watched him walk a few paces. Then the man bent down swiftly to gather up the coffee cup, crisp packet, and a few odd scraps of paper that were on the ground nearby.
Joe stood by the car, waiting for the man to unlock it. He put his bag in the back seat, noticing that the driver put the litter in the boot. The car was cool and dark. Joe lay back in the passenger seat, kicked off his shoes, and stretched his cramped toes into the darkness of the foot well.
Whats your name? asked the man.
Come on then, Joe, lets see if you can fall asleep in here. He put the car in gear and drove gently down the road. They joined the motorway slip-road and eased carefully out to join the traffic. Even with his eyes closed, Joe could feel the candyfloss colour of the motorway lights moving across his face.
For six years we lived in Tooting, South London. I got to know many children who were trying to live adult lives from young ages, often through no fault of their families: Somali children with parents traumatised by war, Muslim refugee children who were interpreters for their parents, and children like my protagonist here who are exhausted by the process of living in an inner city and who will take risks that seem crazy to outsiders, just for some peace and quiet. This fiction is a composite, but several of the things that happen in this story are true events that I had to deal with as the governor of an inner city school. When kids go missing, the public outcry often conceals concrete problems that might have helped keep them safe if there had been any will to address the issues of their lives. I wanted to write about children I knew and the daily circumstances they faced.