The bus pulled to a stop. She trudged off, shopping bag in one hand, pulling her scarlet hoodie closer to her against the cold. A faint smell of stale vomit and cheap cigarettes greeted her. She wrinkled her nose in disgust. This was not how she’d wanted to spend her Saturday, but there had been no arguing with Mum.
“You always loved visiting your grandmother, Jessica,” she’d said. “I don’t know why that should change now.”
Jessica! Only her mother and her teachers called her that. To everyone else she met, she was Red.
“Granny’s old and can’t get out much these days. I just need you to drop off some shopping for her and then you can do what you like. But it wouldn’t kill you to spend some time with her, you know.”
Mum hadn’t spent any time with Granny herself for at least a year. She was always too busy, always caught up with work. Always sending her daughter to the Darkwood Estates instead. Red wasn’t surprised. Granny wasn’t exactly all there these days; she was half deaf, and if you spent too long with her she’d be going through photo albums of baby pictures – some of Red, some of Mum, some of people she didn’t even know – as if she hadn’t seen them all a million times before. No, it wouldn’t kill her to spend time with Granny. Not unless she died of boredom.
But that wasn’t why Red didn’t want to go. It had never been a good neighbourhood. Even as a little girl, Red remembered gangs of youths and boarded-up shop windows. It was worse now. These days the only people you saw out in the daytime were either selling or doing drugs. Or both.
A pack of druggies were watching her as she got off the bus, wide eyed and twitchy. “What you staring at, you perverts?” she yelled. They didn’t seem to hear – or care. She walked past them towards the block of flats where Granny lived. They wouldn’t follow her. Well, probably not. Best not to hang around. She wondered what they actually saw in their chemically addled brains – if they saw her at all.
She ignored the security intercom. It hadn’t worked for months. Nor did the lock on the main door. She pushed the door open and headed inside, straight for the stairs. She never used the lift. It was old, and slow, and smelt of piss. She wasn’t planning on getting stuck in there.
The first floor flat was home to a foreign woman, one of those weird little countries that used to belong to Russia or something. She lived there with about sixteen children in just three or four rooms. At least one of the little brats was usually running about on the landing – but not today. She carried on up.
The second floor flat was home to the Axeman. At least, that’s what it said on his T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. She’d never asked his real name and didn’t care to. He wore a bushy, grey beard and some faded jeans, like he thought he was some sort of rock star. He stood in his doorway, watching her, fingers lightly caressing the neck of a battered, old guitar.
“Hey there, Red,” he drawled.
“Hey,” she replied, flatly. Just another pervert staring at her chest, though there was nothing there worth staring at, and wouldn’t be for a year or two yet.
“Wanna hear my latest song?” He strummed a few chords on his guitar.
“Not now,” she said. “I’m off to see Granny. I can’t stop.”
“You’re a nice girl,” he said. “Not many nice girls round here.” He strummed another chord.
Red ignored him and carried on up the stairs.
Granny’s flat was on the third floor. A tattered “welcome” mat sat outside, along with a small potted plant. Granny called it her garden. Despite all the efforts of the foul air, the occasional dog and Granny’s clumsy care, it still clung to life. Rather like Granny herself, thought Red.
As Red went to knock on the door, it swung inward. It was unlike Granny to leave her door open. Red suddenly felt sick. She carefully stepped inside the flat, placing the shopping bag inside the door as she went.
The flat was dark and cold, but that wasn’t unusual. She’d never known anyone as miserly as Granny. “Why waste all that money on central heating?” she’d say. “I can easily put on another jumper, and that costs nothing.”
Red shivered, not just from the cold. She hugged her hoodie tighter around her and headed through to the bedroom.
The bedroom was in darkness. Feeble, pastel curtains blocked out most of the daylight, dull and grey, but still let in enough light to make out the furniture. Most of the bedroom was taken up by a double bed, covered in pillows and cushions and enough blankets to smother an army. Amongst the furnishings, Red could dimly make out a frail figure.
“Granny, it’s me. I’ve brought you some shopping.”
“Thank you, dear.” The voice was raspy and choked, not at all like Red remembered it.
Granny sounded really ill.
“Granny, are you all right?”
“Come closer, dear,” Granny replied.
Red took a step towards the bed. All she could make out were Granny’s eyes, wide and bloodshot.
“What red eyes you have, Granny,” she said. “Have you been at the Pernod again?”
She took another step forward. Granny reached out a hand, snatched at her. Red screamed as the hand grasped her around the wrist, a grip far tighter than an old woman should have.
“Those are some sodding great big hands you’ve got,” Red yelled, trying to pull away.
The figure climbed out of bed to follow her. He was scrawny and filthy, his clothes stained and tattered, and he smelt very bad. He was gibbering nonsense that she couldn’t make out as he came for her. Red fought to escape from his grip; he was too strong, pulling her closer.
“Pretty,” he cooed, his face close to hers, revealing a rapidly disappearing set of blackened, rotting teeth. They reminded Red of the posters in her school, warning them about drugs. “This is what meth does to you!” they had exclaimed.
“What disgusting breath you have,” she gasped.
His other hand grabbed her around the throat.
The posters at school hadn’t mentioned meth turning you into a deranged psychopath. Right now, Red felt that was its most important feature.
She clutched at the hand around her neck as the meth-head pulled her back towards the bed. She kicked out in terror. He didn’t seem to notice her feet hitting him. She tried to scream again, but the grip around her throat was too tight.
She felt herself thrown onto the bed, heard his wheezing laughter. Her vision was growing dark, and her lungs were on fire. Then, suddenly, there was a loud crash. The hand loosened around her throat and the wheezing stopped. There was a thudding sound as a body hit the carpet.
Red fought herself upright, coughing as she fought for air. She looked down at the creep sprawled on the floor, blood seeping from his head.
“Are you okay?”
Red looked up. The Axeman stood over her, still holding the remains of his guitar in one hand.
The police came and took statements. An ambulance came for the meth-head. Red sat numbly while it all went on. The Axeman, whose name was Dave, offered to look after her until her mother came to pick her up.
Granny was fine. She’d spent the last hour visiting the foreign woman on the first floor, cooing over sixteen sets of baby photos. She didn’t understand a word the foreign woman said, but she couldn’t hear her properly either, and the two women had simply talked to each other in their own languages without listening to a word the other was saying. Granny said it was the best conversation she’d had in years.
Mum was in a panic. She promised that she’d never send Red to this hellhole on her own again and, after checking that Granny was safely back home and the flat secure, they drove back to civilisation.
Mum forgot all about her promise, of course, the next time work caught up with her and Granny needed some shopping. Red didn’t argue. She just smiled as she took the carrier bag. It would be nice to see Granny again.
Besides, she didn’t need to worry. She’d be perfectly safe.
She stepped off the bus, smiling at the druggies as they watched her walk across to the flats. They wouldn’t meet her gaze. She watched them slink off with their tails between their legs.
Word had got round. The Axeman would look after her.
You don’t mess with Red when she’s in the ’hood.