Amy and Toby Skinner bickered about the most inconsequential matters, often coming to blows as the arguments reached their peak. Striking each other was the only way they could end their quarrels. A battle was in progress when Rachel arrived home and she paused outside the door, wishing that
Listening to the muffled accusations her father slung at her mother, to do with a new interest in the occult and occasional visits to consult with a medium, Rachel questioned the viability of her parents' marriage, doomed as it was to stand beneath an umbrella of perpetual disagreement. With her heart set on marrying
Deciding she had waited long enough, she opened the door.
‘Where've you been?’ screamed Amy.
‘Don't start on her,’ shouted Toby. His face flushed with anger.
Rachel edged round the kitchen table, hoping to retreat to her room before the real action commenced. Rex would already be there. He was no fool, he would have departed the minute he caught the first sharp tone. Still heading for the stairs, she kept her mouth tightly buttoned, firmly believing that silence was less likely to provoke her mother further.
‘Did you hear me?’ Amy screeched.
Rachel faced her ill-tempered mother, boldly staring. ‘I've been out with
‘And why didn't you come in at the proper time?’
Now that Amy's annoyance had been diverted away from him, Toby subsided into his chair. Rachel moved towards him, speechlessly defiant yet keeping a cautious eye on her mother.
‘I’m waiting,’ hissed Amy, with menacing calm.
Next door's radio echoed through the party wall. It had to be loud for old Mr Dunthorne to hear since his hearing was fast failing. How uproarious was the noise in the Skinner household if it suppressed even that.
Rachel shrugged and hastily mumbled an apology. She had seen her mother's sights fix on the black-handled bread knife and in that mood anything could happen. She gripped the chair, rocking it to attract her father's attention.
The blade flashed as it skimmed through the air and penetrated the cushion, an inch away from Toby's thigh. He vaulted from the chair and grabbed Amy’s arm, jerking her round to face him. Then he hit her, hard, right on the jaw.
Rachel winced as her mother's head fell back, and she stared aghast when Amy crumpled to the floor. To her knowledge, it was the first time her father had been goaded enough to knock her mother out. She looked from her mother's helpless form to her father, not sure whether to commend or condemn his action; but Toby didn't give her the chance to do either, he stalked out and bounded up the stairs, leaving her alone with her recumbent mother.
The distressing episode brought a bleakness to her mind and body. Rachel went to the fire, intending to sit in the seat vacated by her father, but the sight of the knife stalled her, its blade reflecting the flickering flames. Kapok spilled from the slashed cushion when she extracted the knife. She was shocked to think how close it came to entering her father's leg.
What drove Amy to such violence? It wasn't the first time she had wielded a weapon. A red plastic bowl in the garden shed was evidence of what she could do when roused. During one heated altercation she hurled a meat carver, but her aim was poor and it hit the upturned bowl in the sink.
Rachel's punishments, deserved or otherwise, had never been carried out with a knife. They varied, but in the main her mother employed her favourite method: forcing Rachel against the Welsh dresser and punching her on the jaw. Her head would repeatedly smash on the cupboard doors and a myriad stars would swirl if the door-knob got in the way.
Rachel wondered what to do about the prone figure, not sure if she should try resuscitation or leave her mother to regain consciousness on her own. Her chest was rising quite rhythmically which was probably a sign that she was not seriously hurt. After some deliberation and several bouts of pacing she decided on the latter course, noting the time as a precaution; if it was any longer than thirty minutes, she would ring for the doctor.
She switched off the light before leaving the room, then switched it on again, foreseeing the ensuing chaos if her mother came round in total darkness. She guessed she should have waited but her commitment to combat was not compelling enough to hang around.
Mr Dunthorne's radio subsided into nocturnal silence. Rachel wondered how much he knew of the Skinners' frequent sparring. What scandal there would be if the news got out; the shame would be too dreadful to contemplate.
Gently, she closed the door and drifted towards the stairs. As she negotiated the bend, she heard broken sobs coming from her father's room. She cleared the last few steps to his door and gingerly twisted the knob. It was locked. He didn’t respond when she called so she tried again, calling urgently.
The desire to help him was overwhelming. She rattled the door, begging to be let in. There was no reaction to her pleas and there was nothing she could do. Rachel gave up when sounds below told her that Amy had recovered. She fled to her own room, scampering along the landing as if her mother was already chafing at her heels. Swiftly slamming the door she crashed home the bolt, shuddering as relief engulfed her.
Rex crept out of his bed and came to her side. He delayed wagging his tail until he was sure she hadn't been tainted by the domestic war, then hesitantly offered his paw and sat with his head slanted awaiting Rachel's response. ‘Come here,’ she said, drawing him to her in such a fashion that his eyes and nose were covered by her sleeves. It was not a deed he normally liked, being an independent dog and preferring to arrange his own postures, but he sensed her upset and allowed her to have her own way. ‘One day, Rexie,’ she said, ‘we'll forsake this place and go somewhere peaceful.’
Outside, Amy tried Toby's door. ‘I'll get you, Skinner,’ she yelled.
And Rachel thought: She will, too.
Both of us.