DISCLAIMER: These characters definitely don't belong to me, otherwise we'd be seeing this not reading about it. They belong to the BBC and various other people.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I saw something straight away in this pairing and wanted to develop it. This is the first part of what I hope will be a successful story. The next chapter will be events from Ruby's POV.
SPOILERS: Any sensitive information about the Slaters/ Allens will probably be revealed so read at your own risk.
THANKS: To Claire, for being my encouragement on this. I needed it.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Usually anything that gets me off work for a bit's fine, you know? And Ruby? Well, she's alright, probably my only mate.
But she barrelled in the shop first thing Monday morning (I was trying to work too, in case Yolande or Patrick were watching) panicking cause Danny wasn't taking her to school.
'Hey, Rube, what's up?'
'Dad's taking me!' Her face was like one of those puppets you see in the Punch and Judy. Naive disbelief.
I took my time answering, gathering up a pile of tins to shelve and making my way over to the other side of the shop. 'Bummer.'
She hadn't noticed the time I took to answer. 'Typical, innit? I've been wanting him to drive me in for weeks and the day that he does...'
'Is the day that you wanna try and talk to curly nut?' I finished.
'Yeah.' A kiddy grin came onto her face. 'He smiled at me as well. In the car.'
That was new, something I hadn't heard twenty times. 'What, like a 'I fancy you smile'?'
'Yeah! Well, I think.' That was her stupid insecurity, I'd give anything to be that innocent. 'I'm never gonna know, am I?'
I continued stacking the tins. 'Well, you'll just have to make sure that Danny picks you up.'
'Yeah, but Dad might send someone else. What if he sends Billy?'
'You'll just have to make sure it's him.'
'Yeah, but how?'
'God, have I gotta do all the thinking around here?'
Then she looked at me, those damn eyes! 'I wouldn't ask, Stace, but...'
'You're useless, I know.'
A couple of weeks ago she wouldn't have been sure whether I was joking or not but I must have got through to her. She smiled. 'Look, I better go.'
'Alright. Well, you get a break at this hell-hole, yeah?'
'Gimme a ring then, okay?'
After she'd run out I went back to the counter hoping Patrick and Yolande stayed in the back for a bit. Part of me was jealous. If Danny did fancy her that meant she might have a chance and what did that mean? Yeah, Stacey Slater'd be back to being a loner. Why did that bother me so much? I mean, it's not like I hadn't been on my own before but...
Anyway, I had bigger stuff to think about. Knowing Johnny Allen, he'd wanna pick her up just so he could say he'd done it. Cross another job off the list. So how was Ruby supposed to get Danny alone? God, it had taken her about a month to work up the courage to talk to him about it, anymore time and she'd cry off.
Down to me then.
'Hang on, I can't walk out of college.'
Imagining the look that would be on her face, mixed concentration and horror, made me smile. 'You have to! Anyway, you won't be walking out, you're ill.'
'No, I'm not.'
'Fake something then! Go a bit green, moan a bit. Call Danny to get you, he'll jump at the chance.'
'You really think so?'
'He'd be mad not to.'
Course, it was only since I had nothing better to do that I looked for Danny once Yolande let me out for a break. He was in the caff, that meant she hadn't called him. If she had, he'd have been running around like an idiot, maybe not cause he fancied Rube but cause he was scared of what Johnny Allen would say about his sick daughter being made to wait at college.
Drastic times and all that I thought as I pulled out my phone. 'It's me. What's going on?'
The voice was a whisper. 'You're lucky I'm in the bathroom.'
'They let you go alone then?'
'It's not that bad!'
Totally not a time for arguing though I would have a chat with her about that sometime. 'Alright, Rube. You better get this rolling.'
'Now? I can't. I'll do it later.'
'No, now, Rube. He's on his todd.'
'I'm in the middle of triple maths!'
'You could be in the middle of triple rocket science for all I care. Just put your slap on and do it will ya?'
Quickly, I hung up, not giving her the chance to argue. It was really starting to bug me, the way I was having to do all the legwork for her. All over Danny Moon. Whatever he was, he definitely wasn't the sharpest tool in the box. Maybe all she wanted was security, older blokes give you that. With Johnny Allen as her Dad she'd want someone to look after her. I couldn't do that, could I?
A few minutes later Danny's mobile rang through the caff. I was positioned nicely by the window so I could hear his reaction.
'Hello? Ruby?' His face turned. 'Oh, what?'
As he practically stormed out I smiled. Phase one: complete.
So apparently it bombed. A little after lunch she called me, in tears, babbling about how he'd said no. I didn't wait to ask Yolande, she was out the back, I just grabbed my coat and left.
She answered the door with a swollen face. I felt like there was some magic thing I should know to say that'd make her smile, dry her tears with laughter or something, but I couldn't think of much. All I wanted to know was if he'd hurt her on purpose. Danny Moon wouldn't get away alive if he had.
For a few minutes she sat playing with a tissue in her hand then she spoke. 'My life is over.'
'Blimey, Rube, calm down!' Maybe if I tried to make her laugh or something...
'You didn't see the way he looked at me.'
'What, was Danny nasty to you? I'll punch his lights out.'
'No, not at all. That's what makes it so much worse.' She smiled weakly as she said it. 'He let me down so gently.'
'But he did let you down, definitely?' I had to ask, she hadn't had much experience.
'I'm not stupid, I could tell what he was getting at. And the worse thing is he was so kind and considerate and that's made me want him even more. But I've only seen all this cause he dumped me!'
And I hadn't had much experience dealing with this kind of thing. I looked at her, she was waiting for me to talk. Little flecks of brown hair had fallen down her face, her eyes were still tearful, she wanted me to reassure her. 'It'll be alright.'
'How? What if he tells my Dad?'
'Nah, he won't.' That I was sure of. 'He likes his legs too much. Any idea what your old man'd do if he thought Danny had been leading you on? You're his little princess.'
Ruby smiled half-heartedly. 'He only remembers that when I remind him.'
Yeah, that was right. Johnny probably wanted her to disappear off back to boarding school, visit at holidays, then he wouldn't have to think about her too much. 'You got me, Rube.'
'No problem. You gonna be alright? Only I didn't tell anyone where I was going.'
'You don't wanna get the sack cause of me.'
'I'm working for free,' I reminded her. 'Yolande won't sack me. Free help, ain't I?'
'No, you better go. Call me later?'
Trying to smile reassuringly, I left. Inside I was working out something to say to that Danny Moon when I got hold of him. Why couldn't he have just run off like any other bloke would have? The worse thing he could do to Ruby was to look like he was laughing at her. That's the thing she hates most. He had a lot to answer for.
Yolande had given me a lecture but nothing major. The first thing I did when I got home was to call Rube. It seemed stupid not to just go and see her but I knew if Johnny was there I'd get another warning about 'staying away from his daughter'. And I thought he was the one who did that.
'Is it safe to talk?' I asked.
'Yeah, Dad's downstairs.'
'Have you said anything to him?'
'I haven't seen him yet.'
Typical. 'How are you? Feeling better?'
'I feel like an idiot. Why'd I have to make such a fool of myself?'
'He's the idiot. Just remember that.'
'He's not the one crying is he?'
My stomach clenched at the thought of her still being upset and I struggled to keep my voice cool. 'He's not worth crying about. Trust me, plenty more fish and all that.'
'I think I hear Dad. I better go.'
Later that night while I was in bed, I thought about it all. What did Ruby want from Danny? She didn't just fancy him cause of his looks, I knew her too well to think it was only that, but what else what there? Ha! I almost clicked my fingers (lucky I didn't considering Zoe was snoring away across the room). Someone to make her feel special because Johnny didn't.
Yeah, I'd been wrong before. Danny Moon wasn't the villain. Johnny Allen was.
'Oi, your head in the clouds or something?'
With an effort, I looked up from my cereal. 'Nah, Nan. Just thinking.'
'Same thing. Anything you wanna tell me about?'
'You can stop fishing, alright?' I snapped. 'You're not getting any goss.'
She scowled at me. 'Watch your lip.'
Biting back an argument I went on with my soggy food briefly wondering why I was always getting it in the neck. What was I doing? Thinking! Not a crime unless you were a Slater. Anyway, I wasn't pondering world peace or telly, just wondering how I could help Ruby. Definitely not a crime.
Johnny would head off to the club pretty soon, then I'd sneak in if Ruby had left the door open. It was the little way she had of letting me in, least it meant she wanted me there.
After I'd watched Johnny disappear towards his favourite place around lunchtime, I went round. She'd opened the door so I took that as a sign. No noise downstairs so I climbed the stairs, thinking again that this place was too much like Johnny Allen himself. Keeping things neat was alright (unless you lived with us) but this was too much like obsession. At least Ruby's room didn't make you feel you couldn't sit down.
The door was ajar, I could hear the sobbing from the hallway. That wasn't promising. How could she still be crying about Danny Moon the next day? He wasn't worth it. 'Hey, Rube.'
A sniff in reply. Maybe a grunt.
'How you feeling?' I asked as I sat on the bed. Curled up at the head in her cute pajamas she didn't look up. That worried me.
'How do you think?'
'Well, you'll get over him, I promise.'
'I won't. I don't want to. I might as well just top myself now.'
'Oh, Ruby, don't even joke about things like that.' I hoped she was joking.
'Well, I'd rather die than have to see him again.'
My cue to stay something useful... for a change. 'Well, you'll just have to keep out of his way, won't ya?'
'How?' Her head finally came off the pillow and she looked at me pleadingly, her cheeks puffy. Fish-like. 'He lives across the square and he takes me to college every morning.'
God, she did have a point. 'Well, so what? You've got nothing to be ashamed of.'
She buried her head back into the pillow. 'Why did I think he'd ever look at me?'
'Come on, Rube. You can do a million times better than that stupid curly headed...'
'I don't want anyone else!'
'Anyone who turns you down needs their head testing. Don't take it personally. He probably just prefers blonde bimbos like that Sam Mitchell.'
Cue another wrenching sob, managed to say the wrong thing again, didn't I? But I wasn't lying just to make her feel better. Danny Moon was an idiot. I mean, look at her! She doesn't have to put loads of slap on to make herself gorgeous and she's the sweetest person I know. Not that that's always a good thing, that's why she needs me to look out for her.
'Alright, listen to me,' I said firmly. 'Have you eaten?'
'I'm not hungry.'
'That's a 'no' then, yeah?'
Slowly, she pulled herself into a sitting position, grabbing a tissue from the used lot on her bedside table. 'I didn't wanna face Dad at breakfast.'
'Didn't he care where you were?'
'He thinks I'm sick, that's what Danny told him. All he did this morning was ask if I was well enough to go to college.'
Ruby smiled a little, only a little but it was still a result. 'Maybe I'm a bit hungry.'
'Right, well, what do you fancy?' Oops, maybe not the right word. 'To eat.'
'It'll be a surprise then.' On instinct I reached out wiping a couple of stray tears from her cheek. 'You have to stop crying, you're running outta tissues.'
As she settled back down to brood I made my way down to the kitchen, praying Johnny didn't come back and find me cooking in his house. If he didn't already hate me he would when I messed up his pan organisation.
The cupboards were pretty well stocked, I could make anything I wanted. So, good meal for rejected teens? Oh, something I used to make for myself when mum went out- happy pasta. It'd make her smile anyway.
By the time I got back up to the room Ruby had pulled herself together a bit, managing to look up and smile as I pushed through the door with a couple of plates. 'What's that?'
'My speciality.' I passed her one of the large plates waiting as she looked at it. 'Well?'
'It's got little eyes, and a mouth!' Thank God she didn't think I was laughing at her or something.
'Eat up then.'
When she ate she became a bit more talkative. 'Maybe you were right.'
'Course I was.' I swallowed and looked back at her. 'About what?'
'I should forget about him.'
'Yeah, Rube. You can do loads better.'
Maybe she just didn't believe me but I'm sure her grin faded a bit. 'Yeah.'
She cleared her plate, that was a surprise, but she didn't talk much more. What was I supposed to say? I was more used to talking about Nan's varicose veins than feelings. See, that's what happens when you live with a bunch of oldies. All they talk about is the past and how they haven't got much longer left. Well, good. Maybe then they'll stop complaining.
So she went quiet. I had nowhere else to be (day off) and I thought if Johnny came back and found her with two plates in her bedroom he'd flip. He'd probably reckon she'd had a bloke up there for a romantic meal or something. She really didn't need the hassle so I cleared up, including the pasta I'd flicked at her to cheer her up, and took the plates downstairs.
The house irritated me. It never looked like Ruby lived there. Sure, there were photos of her on the wall but the biggest one was of her sister. Scarlet. God, he'd even named the club after her, did he even get how that made Ruby feel? No, he wouldn't. It was dead daughter against the living one, how she could compete?
The kitchen irritated me the most. So neat. I bet if I put a cup in the wrong place he'd notice and know right off it was me. Rube wouldn't dare to do it would she?
I admit I was tempted to do just that but all it'd mean was trouble for Rube. So, not worth it.
Anyway, I didn't have a chance to do anything. I was just clearing up when I heard the door go. I panicked, I admit it. The thought of Johnny Allen catching me in his house again wasn't a good one.
So I made for the back door but (just my luck, right?) it was locked. No key on the counter, no key in the little jar. If he found me like that he'd probably think I was trying to make off with all his gear.
'Oi, what the hell you doing round here?'
Busted. 'I can explain.' God, could I?
'In her room.' Normally I could think faster but my brain wasn't working. For once it was gonna be the truth.
'Right, you make yourself scarce.' He went to the staircase, feeling like I was really letting her down, I followed as he yelled, 'Ruby!'
If he went up like that he'd upset her even more, just when she was perking up a bit. 'No, you gotta leave her.'
'You shouldn't even be here.'
'Well, at least I'm here when she needs me which is more than can be said for you.'
Judging by the look on his face, stuff like that wasn't gonna help.'What's that supposed to mean?'
But I'd started, why not finish it? He needed to be told. 'Well, admit it Johnny, you ain't even got a clue what's going on in your own daughter's life.'
He looked up the stairs, probably wondering whether he could trust me. 'Right, go on then.'
And get Ruby and Danny killed? No chance. 'It's not for me to say.'
'Then, you know where the front door is don't you?'
I didn't want to go, leaving her to face him on her own. 'It's just some bloke.'
'You tell me who it is.'
'Well, I don't know.'
'Just some boy from college.'
'And how long's she been seeing him?'
'She hasn't, it's just a crush.' That's all it ever was, right? Danny Moon was alright on the eye but a bit thick. Ruby was smart, she needed someone like her.
'If I find out this is a pack of lies you'll be in...'
'No, I swear!' I interrupted. 'They haven't even snogged or anything. You won't give her a hard time will you?'
'I don't need you to tell me what's best for my daughter, okay?'
'Well, she's not gonna want to talk about all this stuff with you. It's girl stuff.' The kinda stuff she only had me to talk to about.
He nodded a little, closest thing to acceptance I was gonna get from him. 'Right, on your bike.'
I knew better than to argue. Quickly, I grabbed my coat from the hook and did a runner. When I got outside I had an attack of guilt. What had I said? If Ruby survived what he was going to put her through maybe she'd turn on me. After all, I'd let her down. Code of secrecy and all that.
Hell, I might be in serious trouble. And with Rube. That was the worst kind.
'You not working today, love?' Uncle Charlie came into the living room where I'd been watching telly. Well, staring into space really.
'No. Yolande don't need me.'
'Well, have you asked her?'
'Didn't see the point.'
'Look, you're supposed to be working off your debt, that means working. Go over there and see if she needs your help.'
'Alright, alright.' No point in arguing. I dragged myself up. 'See ya.'
'Hang on a minute. You okay?'
'Course. Why wouldn't I be?'
'I dunno,' he answered. 'You don't seem yourself.'
'Who am I anyway?'
On that note I walked out, figuring I might as well go to the shop since I had nothing better to do and if Ruby was gonna kill me she probably wouldn't want to do it in a public place so I'd be safe.
Then just as I was going into the shop Danny Moon came out, walking right into me. Perfect opportunity. 'You left your guide dog at home today, have ya?'
'And what's that supposed to mean?'
'You must be blind if you're not interested in Ruby.'
He smiled. 'Well, I wouldn't wanna get in the way of her GCSE's now would I?'
'Oh, don't flatter yourself. She didn't even fancy you anyway.' I barged past him into the shop hoping what I'd said was true.
Yolande looked up from her magazine. 'How nice of you to join us, Stacey.'
'Sorry, something came up.'
'Oh, yes. More important than paying off your debt was it?'
'Look, I'm sorry, alright?' I said irritably going to hang my coat up in the back. Unfortunately, she followed.
'Stacey, I don't appreciate that tone.'
I sighed. 'Sorry. Where do you want me to start?'
'There's some boxes by the freezer that need unpacking. Can you do that?'
It was just my luck, wasn't it? I'd rushed out of the house without my phone so I spent the next three hours wondering if Ruby was trying to call me. Wishful thinking.
When I got home, nothing. No missed calls, texts or anything. Frustrated, I threw the thing against the wall causing Nan to come out from the kitchen.
'Here, what's going on?'
'Nothing,' I spat.
'Don't try putting holes in the walls then.'
'Oh, what do you know?' Leaving my phone on the floor I went upstairs, making sure to slam my door behind me.
Living with that lot was driving me nuts! If it wasn't Zoe complaining cause she had to share a room with me it was little Freddie screaming his head off or Nan and Uncle Charlie laughing at the stupid telly all night. Why couldn't they all just shut up?
I'd been trying to sleep but it wasn't working. Maybe I was worried. I don't know.
Anyway, around ten Uncle Charlie knocked on the door. 'Can I come in?'
Quietly he came and sat next to me on the bed. 'What's wrong?'
'Come on, love. You're not fooling anyone.'
'Just leave it, Uncle Charlie, yeah?'
'You know, Stacey,' he said as he stood up. 'You have to let people in sometime.'
'No one wants to know!'
'I'm asking you, aren't I?'
'Yeah, but you don't mean it.'
'Please, Uncle Charlie!'
'Aright.' As he reached the door he looked back, pulling something out of his pocket. 'Thought you might be wanting this. It's been beeping.'
Gratefully I took the phone and opened the message as he left.
Call you tomorrow. I'm ok. Ruby.
Well, short but at least it was something. It meant she didn't hate me. I don't think I've ever been that grateful for anything. Actually, it made me wanna be a better mate for her. Yeah, that was something I could do.
'I've never seen you pay so much attention to your work, Stacey,' Yolande commented.
'Just doing what I don't get paid for.'
It was late-afternoon. I'd been working since ten in the morning, doing some work too. No wonder Yolande was surprised. I guess I was just in a good mood, better one than yesterday anyway.
I whipped around from my shelf-stacking. 'Ruby!'
'Expecting someone else?' She looked happier, she was smiling a bit and her eyes weren't as red as they had been.
'Dunno. Orlando Bloom maybe.'
'I'll go then, shall I?'
'No!' Whoa, that sounded needy. 'I mean, did you want something?'
'Yeah.' Her eyes went downwards like they always do when she's nervous. 'You got time for a coffee?'
'Course.' Then, realising I was supposed to be working, I looked to the counter. 'Mrs Trueman, can I take my break?'
'You've worked hard, go on.'
That was easy enough. Quickly, I grabbed my coat from the back and walked over to the caff with her. While she got the drinks I picked the corner table- right place for a quiet chat. Course, I had to start. 'Sorry if I got you in trouble yesterday.'
'What do you mean?'
'With your Dad. Telling him what I did.'
'It's alright,' she smiled. 'Actually, we had a really good talk about it.'
For a moment I felt really jealous. She wasn't supposed to be able to talk to him. 'Really?'
'Yeah. He told me about this girl he had a crush on when he was younger. He was really nice.'
'Good.' I know the way I said that was strange.
'Stace, you okay?'
She wasn't convinced, guess that expensive education was paying off after all. 'Alright.'
I wanted to change the subject. 'So what did you wanna talk about?'
'Nothing really. Just wanted to talk.'
Okay, that cheered me up. I wasn't useless after all. She needed me. I've never been needed in my life, it was different. 'Tell you what, is your Dad home?'
'Don't think so. Why?'
'Let's go listen to some music or something. I'm bored sitting in that shop all day.'
'Hang on, aren't you supposed to be working?'
I shrugged. 'If I don't go back she won't notice.'
Ten minutes later we were safely up in her room, just in case Johnny came back. Her CD collection was pretty comprehensive, guess that's what you get when your Dad's trying to buy you off. 'What do you wanna listen to?'
'Nothing depressing. Don't wanna be crying again.'
A lot of her stuff was pop and half the songs on them were about being dumped or whatever so I settled on one of her instrumental compilations. I don't know what the songs were but they sounded alright. 'Where'd you get this?'
'Present from Dad, I think. He sent it to the boarding school.'
At that I looked over to her. I knew what she was thinking about. Why she'd been sent to boarding school in the first place. Her Mum and sister and the fire that killed them. I had to snap her out of that. 'Do you still fancy Danny?'
'No much point is there? He's never gonna like me.'
'I tell ya, he's an idiot. The whole family is.'
'You're related to them!'
Let's see, Alfie was like my distant cousin's estranged husband so Danny was... Oh, it didn't matter. 'Don't mean I have to like 'em.'
Ruby listened to the music for a minute before she spoke. 'Why are you like that?'
'Off with everyone.'
With anyone else I'd have taken that the wrong way. 'Come on, everyone's off with everyone. That's life.'
'Yeah, but you do it all the time.'
'Stops people doing it to me first.'
Maybe she was just thinking about that cause she shut up for a little bit. Me, I had to admit I kinda liked that music, I was dozing off.
The next thing I knew she was shaking me awake. Seems I'd managed to drop off. Actually, considering the fact that Zoe had been snoring like a foghorn last night, I'd done pretty well not to fall asleep at work. 'Sorry, what?'
She grinned. 'You've been asleep ages.'
'What?' I checked my watch. It was almost seven. 'Oops.'
'My Dad'll be home soon.'
'So you want me out?'
The way she said it, like she was so sorry, make me laugh. 'Alright. I'll go out the back. If your Dad catches me again he's gonna put me up for beheading or something.'
'Thanks, Stace,' she said as she saw me down the stairs.
'For what? I've been asleep for two hours.'
'You were here though.'
That was sweet. 'Call me, yeah?' As she nodded I slipped out of the back door, feeling needed. It was a good feeling.
It was a surprise that I managed to sleep Wednesday night considering the daytime nap thing that I hadn't done since I was like six. Maybe it had just been a hard couple of days.
Anyway, the first thing I knew was when Nan threw a pillow at me. 'Oi, wake up.'
I sat up indignantly. 'What was that for?'
'You skived off work yesterday!'
'It took you nearly a day to figure that out?'
'You're on thin ice, girl.'
'Not good enough. Now get your backside out of that bed and over to the shop.'
'What about breakfast?'
Oh, so it was. I was about to argue that I needed some food when I caught the look on her face. It was never good when her eyes narrowed like that. I'd probably be best getting the hell of there. Yolande would be easier to face than Nan on a bad day. 'Okay, I'm going.'
I'd been right. Yolande had given me a mini-lecture but nothing I couldn't handle. All the work I put in the other day must have helped. But she had me stock-taking in the back. It would've been a punishment if I hadn't wanted to do some thinking.
Thinking! The idea gave me a laugh before I just got on with it.
Ruby was my best mate. Scratch that; my only mate. So therefore my best mate. And I wanted to do right by her. If that meant her carving some kind of relationship with her Dad I had to help her, didn't I? Even if it meant me getting left out in the cold as usual.
But that wouldn't happen. She needed her Dad but she needed a mate as well. A girl. It was lucky I filled that category. No, she'd need me for a while yet.
'Yeah, I know,' she answered. 'He just said it's someone he wants me to meet.'
'Like a girlfriend?'
'He didn't say.'
'What's her name?'
'He didn't say.'
'God, Rube, what did he say?'
'Call me when it's over, yeah?'
I threw the phone back onto my bed wondering what the hell was going on with Mr Johnny Allen.
He was bringing a woman round to introduce to Ruby? That was a bit sudden. He hadn't been seeing anyone, at least he hadn't told Rube if he had. Maybe it was this whirlwind romance with this old bird who couldn't do any better. Yeah, probably.
Anyway, Ruby'd fill me in later.
It was a boring night. Nan was downstairs watching some old movie, everyone else was out. What was I, the town loner?
Actually, yeah. Since I'd pulled that stunt pretending I'd been mugged everyone had hated me. Then I'd grassed the Millers to the DSS, that hadn't helped much. But I didn't care. Who wanted to be anywhere near that stupid lot? The only decent person around Walford was Ruby. It was weird that she'd been the one to get me into trouble with the Millers and we're still mates. Anyone else, I'd have chopped their hair off.
But it was Ruby. She had this sort of quality about her. Maybe it was just cause she was so innocent but I wasn't gonna leave her to put with Johnny on her own. Nope, I'd look after her.
Finally, around midnight, my mobile rang. Zoe still wasn't back so I could talk as loud as I wanted. 'Hello?'
'I didn't wake you did I?'
How about I'd been waiting for the call? 'Nah, couldn't sleep. How'd it go?'
'Alright, I guess.'
'You don't sound too sure.'
'She's his girlfriend!'
'They dropped that in the middle of dinner?'
'Well, I knew something was going on. I'm not stupid.'
'Who is she, anyway?'
'You remember that woman who nearly ran me down, Tina?'
Oh, yeah. Blonde, massive smile. 'Bit young ain't she?'
'Dad likes her.'
'Yeah, he would.'
'I reckon she wants to be my mate or something.'
Great. Competition. 'You can't let her win you over.'
'Cause then she has power. Don't let her get it.'
Alright, maybe I was being a little weird. Outside the door I could hear footsteps, sounded like Zoe coming back. Damn. 'Look, I gotta go. See you tomorrow?'
'Yeah, no college. You working?'
'Not anymore I'm not. I'll come round when your Dad goes to work.'
'Yeah. Night, Rube.'
After that little conversation I really couldn't sleep. Johnny had a girlfriend, a young girlfriend. If it had been a real oldie I'd have been alright, she wouldn't ditch me to spend time with her. But this Tina, she was glamourous. If Ruby had her to talk to why would she need me?
So I came up with Operation Freakout. Supposed to do just what it said on the tin.
Regular as clockwork Johnny went off to the club and I picked Ruby up. 'Where'd you wanna go?'
'Outta Walford for a bit.'
Mmm. Okay, I could do that. 'You got your travel pass?'
'Yeah,' she said slowly.
'Usual routine then.' We had this method of sneaking on the tube using one pass for the both of us. I was a genius sometimes. 'Come on.'
As we walked she was pretty quiet. I had the idea she wanted to talk to me about this Tina but she couldn't. When we got near the station she finally spoke. 'I don't wanna think about it.'
That had come a little out of nowhere. 'What?'
'Dad and Tina. I think it's disgusting.'
'Well, yeah,' I reasoned when we approached the ticket guard. 'Course you're disgusted.'
I 'accidentally' dropped a pile of coins onto the floor, the guard bent down, Ruby passed me her card and moved past him. 'Oh, no.'
When the guard stood back up I flashed the card and smiled sweetly. 'Parents and sex. Thanks.' We made out way down the stairs. 'It is disgusting though, innit? I mean, any old person and sex... Well, I don't wanna go there. Imagine someone you know over thirty...'
'Doing it?' she supplied softly.
'Exactly. All that flab and wrinkles makes your skin itch.'
Wanting to get out of Walford was overrated An hour later we were back in the tube station. Ruby had been really quiet, I figured familiar surroundings and all that might make her open up a bit.
The market was buzzing. Sort of automatically we made for the caff. Finally, fed up of wondering what she was thinking, I said, 'You hate him for this, don't ya?'
'It ain't his fault.'
'Whose is it then?'
'He didn't have to tell me. I mean, you could tell he was really embarrassed. He didn't have to introduce us.'
'No, and you don't have to like her. Your Dad stopped us hanging about cause he felt like it then he forces you to eat a whole dinner with this Tina woman cause he's knocking her off.'
'Yeah, but he ain't just my Dad, that's what I'm saying. He's a man and that ain't his fault is it?'
Okay, what was she saying? She turned, going into the caff. I followed then I noticed this bloke unlocking his bike just outside, he'd put a paper bag and a drink on the ledge. On instinct I grabbed the drink as I went through the door. Old habits die hard and all that.
'Hey, where'd you get that?' Ruby was waiting for me at the counter.
'Alright, alright.' There was a bin at the side of the counter, I dropped it in with a thud. 'Ain't got it anymore, have I?'
I think she was trying not to but she smiled. 'What do you want? It's on me.'
'Chips? What, just chips?'
While she ordered I grabbed a table. I was still trying to work out her little puzzler from outside. He was a man so it let him off everything? Thought that was the excuse blokes used when they'd cheated or something. Maybe she was just trying to make herself feel better- blaming all men for what Johnny was putting her through rather than blaming Johnny. Best idea I could come up with anyway.
'What's up?' Ruby was sitting opposite me before I realised.
'Wishing you'd kept that drink?'
'Nah, it smelt funny.'
She grinned a little, looked down at the table then back at me. 'Do you ever think about the future?'
Weird question. 'Yeah, course. No point thinking about the past, eh?'
'Well, what do you think about?'
'I dunno. Making loads of money, living in this massive house with twenty servants.'
'How you gonna get the money?'
'Win the lottery, I suppose.'
'Yeah, but that's just a dream, ain't it? I'm talking about the real future.'
Heck, Rube, going a bit deep. 'Nah. Nothing much to think about.'
She was probably wondering what I meant by that but the chips came before she could argue with me about it. 'They look nice.'
I picked one up, looked at it then Ruby. 'I hate chips.'
'Why do ya eat 'em then?'
'I dunno. You couldn't get a dinner round ours without chips in it when I was a kid. It didn't matter what you was having. I got to thirteen and I said to my Mum, 'you know, there is other things you can do with a potato'.
'And what did she say?'
'She said 'I pay the rent, you do what I say and you get what you're given'. So I broke her peeler deliberately.'
Ruby smiled a bit.
'I went into the kitchen the next morning, she's standing there with a bowl, a cereal bowl, full of chips and a pint of milk.'
Her smile disappeared.
'And I'm going, 'I don't do breakfast, Mum'. She said, 'Oven chips. You think you're so clever my girl but there's always oven chips'.'
Rube smiled again. 'We used to have an orange. For breakfast, you know. Cut in half like a grapefruit.'
As she talked I dropped the chip on to the table and started dripping dollops of ketchup on it. I was listening to her though.
'In a bowl, with a spoon,' she went on. 'Then we had cereal and toast and a glass of milk. And Mum used to set the table out the night before to save time. So we could spend ten minutes together in the morning. Dad just used to read the paper. But Mum said that's how families were supposed to spend the morning. You know, us four. Together. For ten minutes.'
I finished squeezing the bottle, pushed the soggy ship across the table and onto the floor. Ruby looked at me like I was crazy. 'Families,' I shrugged. 'Well, it's outta date, innit? I mean, it's obvious it ain't gonna work. You're stuck with the same few people you ain't even chosen. And you only got landed with 'em cause of blood.'
'Yeah.' She looked me right in the eyes, smiling. Maybe she really did understand. Yeah, she would. She had Johnny.
'Yeah.' I repeated staring back at her. Finally, she grew a bit shy and looked back at the table.
No matter. We'd pretty much said all there was in that look.
I think maybe I'd scared her a bit. She didn't talk, I played with my chips until Jane confiscated them.
After a while I stood abruptly. 'Come on. Might as well have a look round the market.'
She looked a little down but she nodded.
Everything was a little quiet. To get it back to what we were usually like I went back to the subject of Tina. Anything to make her forget I'd practically showed myself as a nutter in front of her. I was supposed to be making her freak out about her new mother-type instead of making her think I needed a straightjacket.
When she was browsing the shoe stall, I started. 'You wanna tell her straight. Being a new girlfriend don't give her no rights over you. Don't make a difference to you who your Dad's knocking about with. My mate Kayleigh's Dad moved this woman in for a bit and suddenly she's been forced to wear pink and tidy her own room.'
'Well, Kayleigh's a goth. You ever seen a clean goth in a pink dress?'
She grinned as I made an effort to nick some shoes.
'You wanna set it straight from the start,' I went on. 'You tell her, that Tina, if it's any way, it's gonna be you giving her the advice. Oh, yeah, and from what I can remember, her hair is well outta date and her make-up shows her lines.'
'Oi!' Damn! The stall owner glared at me, reluctantly I put them back. When I turned back Ruby looked terrified. She always did.
I took her arm- she was practically rooted to the floor- and headed to the square. 'You gotta look out for yourself, Rube. You ask anyone, you'll get the same answer. Your posh school, my rubbish school. There ain't one mate between us who wouldn't say the same. Parents mess up, split up then start trying to tell you the rules.'
'But my Dad weren't trying to tell...'
'Well, I don't think so. Cause the rule is you do whatever works for you, whatever makes you happy and screw them.' We were walking past Martin Fowler's fruit and veg stall, there was a nice box of apples right where I could grab them. I took a couple, passed one to Rube and bit into mine as Martin came round from the other side.
'Oi! What the hell do you think you're doing?'
Oops. The look on his face told me this was gonna be a tricky one to get out of.
Angrily, she stormed round us. 'What do you think I am, eh? Some sort of mug you can nick off with no comeback? Is that what this is? Is it? Oh, it's only Martin Fowler, innit? What's he gonna do, eh?'
I had to get some sort of control back, for Ruby. 'It's just a couple of...'
'No, no. I know what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna report ya.'
You what? 'Who to? The apple police?'
He moved closer. 'Don't you dare take the mickey outta me.'
'It's two apples! What is the big deal?'
'Yeah, what I got up at half five this morning for! Which I chose! Which I took delivery of!'
I held it up. 'If you're that bothered have it back.'
'You can't give me back what's already mine!'
'Well, what do you want me to do then?'
'Pay for them!' Oh, no. That wasn't Martin. That was Tina appearing right beside him.
'I'm cleaned out actually.'
Tina looked past me to Ruby. 'Do you want me to pay for them?'
'Yeah,' Ruby answered quietly.
I directed everything back at Martin. 'You're off your head, you are.'
'You can just go around walking all over people cause you feel like it,' he snarled back. 'It's the principle.'
'Yeah? And you're a nutter.'
'Just get outta my face, will ya?' He shook his head and turned to Tina, taking the few coins. 'Thank you.'
Tina walked off, after smiling at Ruby. Somehow I'd managed to come off really badly after trying to get an apple! Where was the logic? Anyway, if I put Tina down now Ruby might think I was being a cow. Didn't want that. 'Course, some girlfriends are better than others. Even if their hair ain't right.'
Ruby stared after the disappearing woman. I wondered what she was thinking. Then I wondered why I didn't wanna ask.
'You better go,' I said finally. 'Your Dad and all that.'
'Yeah.' She looked back to me at last. 'Don't nick anything else, okay?'
'Me? You're thinking of someone else.'
That got a grin at least. 'I'll call ya.'
Then she walked off. What the hell was I thinking, letting her go like that? I knew exactly what'd be on her mind- Tina and how nice she'd been. Not the thought I wanted her to spend a lot of time with.
So I was angry most of the night, snapping at Little Mo for Freddie screaming his head off and Zoe for being herself. I wasn't stupid, I knew how close I was to losing Rube to this Tina. God, it scared me.
If Rube decided she liked her new 'mum' then she'd start listening to her, yeah? Cue Tina (who's already been poisoned against me by Johnny) telling her I'm a trouble-maker and not someone she should be hanging around with.
Well, it was kinda true. For crying out loud, I'd just nearly got her arrested for helping me nick an apple! I admit, I was a bit of a bad influence. And Rube was so easy to lead, she trusted me totally. Don't think anyone had done that since the first time I shoved a girl's head down the loo.
I felt soppy even thinking about it but Rube meant so much to me, you know? When I'm with her I feel like a normal girl, not someone who tries to rile the neighbours for the hell of it. Maybe she brings something out in me, my nice streak? Didn't think I had one.
Maybe something else. I wasn't sure...
Saturday. I was definitely working considering the skiving off I'd done in the last few days. The night before Nan had come into my room threatening me with helping Zoe on the stall if I didn't get my act together. Nothing worse in my mind than spending a whole day with the saddest Slater. The shop it was then.
'I don't expect you running out on me today, Stacey,' Yolande stated as soon as I got there. 'If you want to do that you may as well leave now.'
'I'm sorry.' I meant it. 'Just trying to help someone.'
'Ruby Allen by any chance?'
'You notice everything, do ya?'
She smiled strangely. 'I notice more than you think.'
Whatever that meant, I couldn't understand it. Maybe that was the idea. Give me this weird little thing to work out and I'd forget about the time and do some work or something. Just the sort of stunt Yolande would pull.
So I worked. Nothing better to do really since Ruby hadn't called. I understood why- Johnny was probably in one of his 'doing right by his daughter' moods which usually meant encouraging her to do some homework. She wouldn't be able to get away. Pity. I felt like a chat.
Around mid-afternoon I was in the back room pricing up some tins before I put them on the shelves.
'Stacey?' 'Yolande popped her head round the door. 'You have a visitor.'
'Who is it?'
'Ruby. You're not to leave the store, okay?'
'I'm not going wandering again, don't worry. Just send her in here.'
A moment later Ruby came in, looking nervous. 'Hi.'
Despite how glad I was she hadn't totally forgotten me, I only glanced at her briefly. 'What's up?'
'Nothing. I was just, you know, seeing if you weren't alright.'
'Well, why wouldn't I be?'
'Martin Fowler, yesterday,' she elaborated. 'He was a bit rough.'
'I can handle myself.'
'Yeah, I know.' She looked a bit hurt. 'I'd just thought I'd check.'
Before I realised she was out the door. 'Ruby!'
It was too late. Angrily, I took the pricer, throwing it against the box.
'Stacey!' Yolande came back in. 'What's the matter with you, hmm? An argument with Ruby?'
'Mmm-hmm. What was it about?'
I slumped against the wall. 'Me being a silly cow, that's all.'
'Oh.' Yolande pulled up the stool. 'You usually get on well with Ruby. She looks up to you.'
'Don't know why.'
'Neither does anyone else.' Yolande grew serious. 'Listen, Stacey, I've noticed a change in you the last few weeks.'
'You've become a little- excuse me for saying it- nicer. I think that's down to Ruby.'
'It's good having someone to talk to,' I admitted.
'Don't lose it then.'
'But I'm Stacey Slater! Course I'm gonna lose it.'
'Not necessarily. Go on. Talk to her before it's too late.'
I ran out of the shop in time to see Ruby disappearing into her house. Glancing to my left I saw Johnny outside the club talking to Jake Moon. It didn't give me much time.
When I reached the door I started banging on it like a madwoman. After a few seconds Ruby answered it. 'Stacey, what are you doing?'
'Let me in!'
She looked past me. 'My Dad'll be home in a minute!'
'Well, I'm not going anywhere so either let me in or he'll find me on the doorstep.'
Not a tough choice in the grand scheme of things, she moved aside and I went straight up to her room.
'Alright,' she said as she closed the door. 'What's the problem?'
'Yesterday, I could handle Martin, I mean he's a wimp. But, you know, next time I might not be able to especially if it's this massive security guard in a shopping centre or something. One of them could probably kill me with a finger.'
She stared. 'What?'
Okay, easy route. 'I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been off with ya.'
'What makes me different from anyone else?' she asked.
Damn, should have seen that one coming. 'I dunno. I like ya?'
'That's supposed to be a compliment is it?'
The front door banged downstairs.
'That'll be Dad.' Ruby went to the door and listened. 'He's not coming up.'
'Why would he? You're being a good little girl doing your homework, right?'
She came to sit next to me on the bed. 'You never answer my question, do ya?'
'It's a bit heavy, ain't it?'
'Well, I thought we could talk. You know, like proper mates do.'
'We are proper mates, ain't we?'
'How would I know? Not exactly Miss Popular am I?'
That was something I was grateful for... not that I'd ever tell her that. 'Everyone round here's crazy. You should know that by now.'
'Spent enough time with you, ain't I?'
Talk about cheeky. Still, I had snapped at her. 'Am I forgiven then?'
She smiled shyly. 'Course.'
'Right. I'll get outta your house then.'
'I'll distract Dad.'
We crept down the stairs, exchanging these sort of criminal glances. Before she went into the living room she squeezed my arm. I looked at her quizzically but she avoided my stare.
The next thing I knew I was out on the street.
That night I curled up under my duvet wishing for sleep to come. Nature was playing a cruel trick- it didn't.
Zoe slept away in the bed across the room, her breaths sounding like wind howls in the silent house. Everyone else had long since settled down but I just couldn't stop my mind going over things.
I'd been in such a rush to make things right, I never did that. My motto was to let them come to me otherwise what was the point? Maybe the point had changed.
I couldn't mess Ruby around, not with everything she'd been through. And you know what? I didn't wanna. It was like this bulb had blown in my head. Suddenly I wasn't seeing things the way I had most of my life, everything was a bit... shadowy. Things were there that I didn't like the look or feel of.
With a sigh I rolled over, trying to get into a comfy position. Sleep would stop me thinking.
Except it didn't.
That night I had the weirdest dream. All the family- Little Mo, Zoe, Nan, Charlie- were stuck in this sinking submarine and I was supposed to be rescuing them.
I was doing my nails.
Then I heard something else, someone else. Ruby was trapped in this glass box. The whole sub was slowly filling up with water, she was drowning, the box was airtight. There was an axe on the wall. I tried it. Bounced straight back.
Then Nan grabbed me, pulling me up and up to the surface. And all I could see was the sub getting lower into the murky water till it disappeared for good. With Ruby.
It was the first time I'd woken up sweating in years. Ever since I could remember I'd made it so I wouldn't have a conscience- if someone died in a dream didn't make it my problem in real life. How had that changed?
Oh, come on, I knew exactly how. I'd met this girl. I liked this girl. I really did.
To Be Continued
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