‘Sorry – next please,’ she says, just like that, the girl with the lilac lipstick behind the desk. I look up into his face, his silence makes me swallow a lump in my throat. I didn’t even listen to what he asked her, I hate the Labour Exchange.
We are out on the street, and dad has a look in his eyes I don’t like. He’s heading home the long way, I don’t know why, but I follow him, breaking into a run every few steps so I can keep up. He hasn’t worked for six weeks now, though he still has his scruffs on, that jacket full of holes that when I was little I used to poke my fingers through and he’d nip at them with his teeth. He marches like a soldier – he was a soldier before I was born. We’re heading past the park, the way we go home from school, over the bridge and down the hill.
Last week Thomas Cartwright told me his dad had thrown their kittens off the bridge in a sack. I almost cried in Mrs Thomas’ class and went at half past three to see if I could see proof in the water far below. Of course I couldn’t, I didn’t let myself think that even if it had been there the river would have washed it away. Then I swallowed hard, I pictured my dad scaling that wall, and leaping over the railings.
We pass the park, the bridge isn’t far; I can see the brick columns which stand at either side of the road. A bus drives past and the exhaust fumes are black and sting my throat. The drop would kill kittens, they wouldn’t drown – Thomas Cartwright said it was kinder because they died quick. We were at the bridge, my dad still strode, I stumbled to keep up.
I took his hand, he didn’t clasp but he left his there and kept walking.
Then we were over the bridge and I let mine drop again, I don’t think he noticed. He’s walked quickly all the way home, it is cold and my cheeks are numb. When we got home mum started shouting as usual and the two laid into each other. I went upstairs and quickly jumped on my bed to hide my wet face from my brother.