'Sally,' said my father from under the car. 'Pass me the hammer.'
I looked at the array of oily tools in the metal box, and passed him a long pointy thing.
'The hammer . . . the hammer, Sally . . . what do they teach you in school nowadays? Don't you do mechanics?'
'Miranda does the mechanics. I do the football team,' I told him, knowing he wouldn't get it.
'I mean, a hammer and a screwdriver . . . ' he said, ' . . . for Christ's sake, what an education. She's going to end up at the end of this year with GSCEs in art appreciation and retail therapy.'
'I'd need more money to be good at that,' I told his legs from where they poked out under the car.
'Don't be smart.'
'I thought not being smart was what you were moaning about? Can I go and see Miranda now?' Miranda lives across the road. We had an argument about communism that week and I wanted to make it up with her. She is a bit prettier than me and she prefers Sartre to Camus but she's still feeling the alienation and that's the important thing—solidarity.
She has more black clothes than I do, and her mother let her get a belly button ring. I tried to make the same deal with my father and he told me if I attempted to pierce any part of my body for any reason he would chuck me out of the house. Being chucked out would not be a bad thing. It would be inauspiciously timed. I need to finish my education if I'm ever going to break out of this moron-populated town and make a success of myself as a sculptor in London.
'I suppose so. Do you think you could wear something a bit more summery?' said my father. 'Your mother's been gone for six months now. I don't think the statement of ultimate depression is needed any more.'
'She's not gone, okay? She lives down the road. I see her three times a week and at weekends, remember?'
'She's gone to me,' he muttered.
'I heard that.'
'Hi everyone!' I looked up. Miranda had come to find me instead. I knew that this was actually an excuse to flirt with my father, whom she has declared to be a stud. I told her he trims his nasal hair with nail scissors and she informed me that hirsute men were more physically intellectual. I wasn't sure if she meant that a man should be well-muscled but aware of the futility of relying on strength to get out of dangerous situations, or if she just wanted to have her cake and eat it.
My father slid out from under the car and appraised Miranda, his knees bent, his legs open.'You see?' he said. 'Miranda looks lovely and summery. Pretty dress.'
And it was a pretty dress, in your bog-standard fashion victim teeny tiny halter neck pink disaster type of a way. And I'm fairly sure she was wearing makeup. It was an overnight conversion to a religion that demands the sacrifice of all principles in the name of vanity, and it was horrible to behold.
'Traitor!' I said. 'Look at you, you slave! What happened to the black?'
'Call it freedom of the mind,' she said loftily. 'Commitment to new forms of expression. I'm no slave to the precepts of ego. At least, not in this temperature. You must really be sweating in that jumper. Are you mending things, Mr Young? Can I help? I love cars.'
'You don't,' I said.
'I love cars today . . . ' she said, with a raise of her eyebrows and a pout of her lips. I pointed at her and then drew my finger across my throat with a suitably evil expression.
'Don't you have somewhere else to be?' she asked me.
'Well,' said my father, his eyes sliding from her bare knees to my evil stare. 'I suppose I could talk you through how you change the brake pads.'
'Brilliant!' She crouched down beside him and leaned over. 'I just looooove cars.'
'You've already said that.'
She ignored me. 'So what kind of car is this?'
'You love cars, and you don't know what kind of car it is?'
My father spoke over me. 'It's a Porsche 944. I'm doing it up. It's older than you.'
'Everything's older than me,' said Miranda. 'I'm just starting this great journey called life.'
'That's so true,' sighed my father as he disappeared back under the car.
'I need a teacher,' called Miranda. 'A life teacher, you know, Mr Young?' She looked up at me and blew a kiss.
'Look,' I said to her, keeping my voice low. 'Communism as a model for government is very admirable. But it's unfeasible. You'd never get it to work. I don't know why you're being so stubborn about admitting that.'
'I'm not interested in that any longer.' She waved her hand at me. 'I don't want to have conversations with teenagers. They never understand the nuances of my arguments. No, I need to surround myself with older people, people with empathy.'
'You are pathetic,' I told her.
'Right, Miranda, I'm going to take off the old pads now,' my father said from under the car.
'Fascinating,' I said.
There was a fair amount of banging, followed by a little bit of inappropriate swearing.
'Problem?' called Miranda.
'It's a bit stuck. I might need some WD40 or something.'
'Can I fetch that for you?'
'Well . . . I don't think I've got any here . . . ' My father pulled himself out from under the car and wiped his hands on the rag that had once been part of the living room curtains he had always hated when my mother lived with us. He scanned the garage with his eyes. 'No . . . I can't see any.'
'So how did you get interested in cars?' Miranda asked him, pressing her arms together to make her insignificant boobs look bigger. I saw my father's gaze flicker to her chest, then to her face.
'I suppose it was a childhood thing, you know, watching my dad work on his car. It's very hot in here, isn't it? Don't you think? Sally, why don't you fetch us all some drinks?'
'Over my dead body.'
'Miranda, do you think you could go?' I said. 'This is a family matter.'
'Not until you apologise to her,' he said, in his warning tone of voice that makes me feel like a two year old.
'It's fine, Mr Young,' said Miranda, putting one hand on his arm, right on his bicep, and giving it a little squeeze. 'Girls will be girls.'
'I . . . ' He looked distracted. In fact, he looked smitten, the eyes misty, roaming, like the eyes I've seen men give to models advertising bras on billboards.
I thought quickly. 'Right,' I told them both, 'That's it. Either she leaves or I'm . . . I'm . . . drinking this paint.'
I picked up the tester pot that's been sitting by the garage door since Mum left. It was primrose yellow, the colour she was going to paint the downstairs toilet until she decided it wasn't worth decorating a place she couldn't stand any longer. I unscrewed the lid, took out the mini brush that came with it, and held it to my face. The fumes were potent, but I kept it close to my lips.
My father stood up. Miranda stood up too. Her hand dropped from his arm. One point to me.
'Don't be so ridiculous, Sally,' he said. I could tell he wasn't really worried. After all, what kind a moron drinks paint? Not one with some of his superior genetic code, that's for sure.
'I'll do it!'
'Yeah, right, and I'll do the cha cha up the road. Come on, it's time for lunch anyway. Maybe we'd better see you later, Miranda.'
She looked destroyed. I revelled in it for a moment, then turned my back on her. One should not gloat at the enemy's defeat for too long in case it leads to bitterness and recrimination, wouldn't you say? I'm thinking of the Treaty of Versailles here.
And, in that moment while my defences were down, she struck.
'Ow! O wow o wow ow!'
I swung around. She was on the floor again, clutching her ankle, looking pretty in a poisonous anemone kind of a way, her hair moving around her shoulders as she shook her head.
'I'm so silly,' she said breathlessly, 'I tripped. Is it broken? I think it's broken?'
'Oh my gosh,' said my father, and he knelt beside her. His fingers found her ankle and pressed against the skin. She moved her leg, and her dress rode up her thigh.
'Step away from her,' I said in my scariest voice. 'Or I drink the paint now.'
My father looked up at me. And I realised I'd done the stupidest thing of all. I'd put him in the place where he had to make a decision. Me or Miranda. And I knew that was just what my mother had done—she'd told him it was up to him. Either he wanted to be married to her, or he wanted to be alone. And he'd chosen alone.
So rather than listen to his answer, I drank the paint.
Most of it came back up straight away anyway. The doctors at the hospital were very understanding, and when they asked too many questions my father started crying a little bit. I don't know if it was deliberate, but it made them go away fairly quickly.
I stayed in overnight, just to be sure, and I think he went home. If he did, he forgot to shave that morning.
'We can go,' he told me. 'Check out any time. Everything's fine.'
'Did you see Miranda?' I asked him.
'Since when? Since yesterday? Of course not.'
'So will you be seeing her?'
'I don't know.' He sat on the bed and played with the white plastic bracelet they'd given me. 'Will you be inviting her round again?'
'It's fair to say that's an absolute no.'
'That's a shame.'
'Why? Because you want to see her?'
He shook his head. When he looked at me, it was like he saw me as an adult. The veil of forced cheeriness was gone for the first time, and I mean the first time. It had been there before Mum left, before I even knew they didn't like each other any more. 'It's nice to be wanted,' he said. 'It's been a long time since someone flirted with me.'
'You should get out more,' I told him.
'That's probably true. But it's scary. Miranda's safe. Nothing's ever going to happen with Miranda.'
'You don't know Miranda.'
'Oh yes I do,' he said. 'She'll think I'm a dream for two weeks, and then move on to the next mechanic in line. I was just enjoying my two weeks. Sorry that it got to you.'
'Well, you're human,' I said. And I meant it.
'So I'm forgiven?'
'As long as we never have to talk about it again,' I said. 'And please don't think this means you shouldn't get a girlfriend. I think you should get a real girlfriend. Not one of those chatroom lonelyhearts you spend time moaning to in the evenings.'
'I think you're right,' he said. 'We should never talk about this again.'
And we didn't.