The next few days passed quietly and without incident. Despite a lack of trust, Beth went back to work, leaving Jennifer to her own devices. The girl was calm and made few demands on her, certainly nothing that you wouldn’t get from any other teenager and without the previous veiled threats. Beth tried to live normally and the only thing that gave her away was waking from her nightmares bathed in sweat. Jennifer was decorating her bedroom and in the evenings Beth would help her. They were playing at being normal. It was the next phase in the game, a role that Jennifer could never keep up for long.
Maggie and Beth spoke most days on the phone although Beth tried to make the calls from work whenever possible. Maggie would always ask if the little free-loading freak had gone yet and Beth would tell her to give the girl a break. The phone line crackled with tension whenever Jennifer was mentioned and eventually, to Beth’s relief, they soon avoided the subject. Beth had killed a man, she’d hidden his body, she’d been blackmailed into taking his strange sister into her home and yet, as the days passed, her life became an overcoat with a designer label that read Normal. Despite misgivings, she found the antics of Riff-Raff and Magenta charming. Mage chewed a hole in one of Beth’s good scatter cushions and made a nest.
Riffy left droppings the size of bullets on her cream sofa but, far from being disgusted, the rats were so loveable that within days Beth would have forgiven them anything. Jennifer had told her on the first night that once a rat is tame it won’t bite unless cornered and this certainly seemed to be the case. Soon Beth was brave enough to let them out of their penthouse suite to run around and get into mischief. She loved it when they’d crawl onto her shoulder and chatter happily into her ear.
Maggie called around one evening with two bottles of Lambrini and a Chinese takeaway. She had teenagers herself and knew what they could be like but that didn’t stop her having a lot to say about the rats running around the living room. She was cool with Jennifer, who moaned about the curry being too mild and having peas in it, despite putting away a third of the contents. Maggie had purposefully only bought for the two of them and was annoyed when Beth, trying to avoid confrontation, spread the food between three.
‘I mean, it’s not right, is it? Who ever heard of Indians putting peas in their curry?’
‘Do they have peas in India?’ Beth asked. She thought that garden peas were part of a purely British heritage. ‘After all, they don’t have cottage pie, do they? And where would a good cottage pie be without peas?’ They crunched noisily on prawn crackers and pondered this thought for a moment.
‘Oh, I forgot to tell you,’ said Maggie around a mouthful of fried rice, ‘I had my window put through, last week.’
Beth concentrated hard on spearing a piece of beef with her fork and felt her cheeks warming.
‘Shut up,’ shrieked Jennifer. ‘That’s awful, Maggie. Have you any idea who did it? I’d zap their balls in a blender till they screamed like little girls.’
‘You’re kidding, aren’t you?’ said Maggie with a laugh. ‘I’d shake their hands and drop them a fiver if I knew who it was. I’ve been nagging the bastard for ages for double glazing at the back and if they hadn’t smashed it he’d have made me wait another two years. We got a bargain in the end with one of those deals off the telly. I’m just hoping the vandals come back and trash my bathroom suite.’
‘I bet they didn’t think they were doing you a favour at the time,’ Beth laughed, looking boldly at Jennifer.
In response, Jennifer leaned across the table and poured herself a third glass of wine.
‘Are you old enough to drink? Shouldn’t you still be at school, or something? How old are you, anyway?’ asked Maggie.
‘I’m twenty one, twenty two in May. See, I’m not as young as I look.’
Maggie and Beth both raised their eyebrows. ‘Yeah right,’ said Maggie, ‘and I’m Jesus of Nazareth. Listen, I’ve got kids of my own, sweetheart, so don’t come that with me.’
Jennifer was sulking. ‘Okay, I’m almost eighteen, but I’m not some snot nosed brat, you know. I’ve seen things that you could only imagine.’
Maggie sneered. ‘Such as?’
Beth shot Jennifer a warning look. It didn’t go unnoticed by Maggie.
‘Such as wouldn’t you like to know,’ countered Jennifer.
‘Oh, isn’t it past your bedtime, little girl? Go on, run along now and let the grown-ups talk.’
Beth saw the animosity flash between them and tried to be peacemaker. ‘Pack it in you two. Can’t you just play nicely without bickering?’
It was Maggie’s nature to blurt out whatever came into her head. Fuelled by cheap wine and bothered by the looks that passed between Beth and Jennifer, she couldn’t hold her tongue. ‘This is bent all out of shape, Beth. I’m not buying this whole set up. You’re touting happy families but I’m seeing Jeremy Kyle. Have you been in touch with your folks, kid? Do they know that you’re here? Where are they, anyway?’
‘Overseas,’ said Beth.
‘Dead,’ said Jennifer at the same time.
Maggie’s eyes opened wide, her face set with a look of triumph. She had them now and she wanted some answers. Something was going on and she was going to find out what it was.
Jennifer forestalled her. ‘They’re overseas really. I tell lies to get attention. My brother’s dead though, and that’s the truth. He died after a tragic accident with a ballerina.’
‘Did she die too?’
‘Oh no, she’s still dancing. My mum went loopy and drinks gin, so my dad takes her abroad to see Betty Ford.’
‘He must be quite a celebrity, this dad of yours, seeing as The Betty Ford clinic only panders to the very famous and very rich. Been in the charts has he?’
‘No, but my mum was a top model before she was horribly disfigured. One of the other models was jealous of her outstanding beauty and threw acid in her face. That’s what happens to bitches.’
Maggie had had enough, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ she droned. Jennifer had done exactly what she had set out to do. The probing questions, once deflected, had stopped altogether. Turning her back to Jennifer, Maggie said to Beth, ‘So, how’s work going, mate? Any fatalities or mad medical drama’s since you’ve been back?’
‘Yeah, we lost Elsie. You know, the little lady I told you about who fell and broke her hip. And I went out to a bloke the other day and found him in a diabetic coma. I told you about it, didn’t I, Phantom?’ said Beth, trying to bring Jennifer back into the conversation.
‘Yep, dirty old git had shit himself. I don’t know how you do it. I couldn’t. And all those dead people that you have to touch. How do you do that? Ugh, I could never touch a dead person.’
Beth laughed, high pitched and unnatural, ‘Hah, I’m a care in the community nurse, Jennifer, not a bloody mortician. It’s not often that I have dealings with anyone that has died.’
‘But what do they feel like? Dead bodies, I mean. I’ve never seen one. Are they all cold and stiff?’
‘Shut up, Je… Phantom.’ She had an edge to her voice. She spoke too sharply and covered herself with another laugh. The curry rose in her throat and she pushed her plate away swallowing hard. Maggie was staring at her, waiting for her to speak. ‘Hah, ever the Goth, eh? Always dwelling on death and destruction. What about life? Where does that fit into the Gothic creed? Let’s all lighten up a bit. This is supposed to be fun.’ She bent under the table to feed Riffy a prawn cracker.
‘You seem uptight, Beth. What’s the matter?’ asked Jennifer innocently. She wasn’t about to let up. ‘I haven’t touched a sore spot have I. Oh my God, you haven’t lost somebody close to you, have you? A boyfriend, or something?’
‘No, I haven’t. Now for Christ’s sake shut up, will you? It’s getting boring. I’m going to sit in the living room. You two coming?’
Maggie hadn’t spoken for sometime but she was watching closely. She noticed Beth’s hand shaking as she stood up, scraping her chair back from the table and splashing wine onto the floor. She replayed the conversation. It all seemed innocent enough, a bit maudlin, maybe, but then she and Beth had talked about all kinds of horrible things before and she had never got rattled like this. Maggie tried to think of a suitable word to describe Beth's demeanour. Frightened. Beth was frightened of Jennifer.
The following Thursday Beth came home to hear the unmelodious strains of Marilyn Manson belting from the house. She heard what she could only describe as devil music before she’d turned off the car’s engine. The neighbours would be demented.
Once in the hallway she shouted twice for Jennifer to turn her music down but the girl would never hear her over that racket. Beth mounted the stairs two at a time. She knocked on Jennifer’s door, but there was no answer. After another attempt at respecting the girl’s privacy by knocking first, she threw the door open and marched inside.
‘Will you turn that bloody mus—’
The words dried in her throat and Beth stared in horror at the girl lying on the single bed. She took in the room at a glance but no relevant words rose to express herself.
Jennifer turned to look at her and a wide smile broke across her face. ‘Beth, I’m glad you’re home. I’ve been shopping. She stood up awkwardly, dragging the monstrosity with her. ‘Beth, I’d like to introduce you to Darklord. Isn’t he beautiful? Would you like to pet him?’
Jennifer took two steps towards her and Beth backed out of the doorway slamming the door hard to form a safety barrier between her and the massive snake. ‘What’s that fucking thing doing in my house? It can’t stay. You do realise that, don’t you? I mean, Phantom, I know you live in your own world with your own warped set of rules and ideals but even you must see that this is completely unacceptable. Get rid of it.’
The door between them opened and phantom stepped though, closing it quietly behind her.
Beth was glad that the thing was no longer draped around her neck. Jennifer had a small smile on her face and spoke to Beth as though she was addressing a small child. ‘Oh, now calm down and stop overreacting. Let’s go downstairs and talk this through quietly. There really is no need for all this drama.’
‘Where is it? Where’s the snake?’ blurted Beth, fighting back the tears stinging her eyes.
‘It’s okay, don’t panic. He’s back in his vivarium and I’ve been really responsible, Beth. I’ve bought glass locks and everything so that he can’t get out. He’s a Burmese python.’
The enormous wooden contraption taking up most of the space in Phantom’s room must be the vivarium and was presumably what housed the beast.
Jennifer took Beth by the hand and led her down the stairs. Beth ranted and gave ultimatums as she was guided gently into a chair. Jennifer was all quiet domesticity. She prattled on to herself while she made a big production of putting on the kettle. Beth began her rant again several times but Jennifer shushed her and said that they’d thrash it all through once they had a nice cup of tea. Beth didn’t need tea; she needed to get that fucking snake out of her house. Now.
‘Now then,’ said Jennifer, placing a cup between Beth’s hands as you might a very frail and elderly lady, ‘Let’s not shout or get excited because there’s no need and I’ve got something far more important that I want to talk to you about.’
‘It’s a snake,’ said Beth in a very small voice, as though defining the intrusion into her home explained everything that needed to be said on the matter. She wanted it out. She refused to be bullied by Jennifer and her stronger personality.
‘Yes, he is and he’s magnificent. You didn’t want the rats, remember.’ She shot this across the room as an accusation. ‘And now, look. I can’t get a second with them. They love you and you love them and it all worked out for the best, just like this will.’
It was true; she had come to love Riff-Raff and Magenta. Since the first few days after the novelty of the pets had worn off for Jennifer, Beth had cleaned them, played with them every night after work and saved scraps for them from the evening meal. Left to Jennifer, they would have died from neglect. She tried to pull herself together and gain some control of the situation. The words that issued from her mouth were supposed to be strong and direct, stating her intensions and brooking no argument. The result, however, became a pleading whine that even she found pitiful. The discovery of a huge snake loose in her house had had a profound affect on her and she was still trying to get over seeing it.
‘I don’t like snakes. Please, please get rid of it. I won’t have it in my house. What if it escapes and gets into my room? I won’t be able to sleep with that here. I just want my life back. Please Jennifer, get it out.’
‘My, my, my, everything’s yours isn’t it, Beth? Your house, your room, your life. I need security. I need to feel as though I belong. From now on, I really would like it to be our house, our rooms, our lives. You can be very selfish sometimes. I expect you’re going to go mad again when the credit card bill comes and you see that I’ve charged seven hundred pounds to it. Haven’t you seen the adverts? You should never write your pin number down like that.’
‘You’ve done what?’
‘Shush, I’m talking. I need to feel wanted and you can afford it. I hope you don’t make a big deal out of this because it really is very insignificant. We need to find a way to be happy together and Darklord makes me very happy, Beth.
You want me to be happy, don’t you?’ Without waiting for any response she carried on. ‘I’m glad we’ve got all that sorted out, I feel better for our little chat. Right, before you say anything at all, I want you to hear me out. You might balk at the idea of this but it’s necessary for us to move on.’
Beth was still processing the confession that Jennifer had used credit card fraud to buy the snake. Seven hundred pounds was over half of her monthly salary. How was she going to pay the bills at the end of the month? They’d try to take direct debits and then, when they bounced, there’d be bank charges on top of that. Her mind was reeling. And now Jennifer was attacking her with something else that she wasn’t going to like. How bad could it be? A Bengali tiger to lie in front of the fire, a great white shark for the bath? Maybe Jennifer wanted to commit bank robbery, grand larceny… murder!
‘I can’t take anymore. Please take your snake and find somewhere else to live.’ Under different circumstances this might have sounded like a threat, but it was just more useless pleading, they both knew that she wasn’t going anywhere. Jennifer just laughed.
‘Now stop sulking and listen. I want you to get me something. It’s no big deal and you can do it easily, you being a nurse and everything.’
Jennifer waited. Beth noticed that she was pausing for her to interject, wanting to gauge the reaction thus far and work out how best to formulate her next sentence. Beth looked in her direction but she didn’t say anything.
‘I want you to get me a little bit of morphine.’