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  • Denise Spencer

Cee's Story

For World Book Day, I thought it would be a good idea to share a snapshot of Cee's life before the story of I am Winter begins. When I was writing the book, Cee was as dear to me as Summer, but the story needed to focus on Summer's reactions to life events, and her coping mechanisms. I hope this sheds some light on Cee's circumstances too.

So here it is; I hope you enjoy:

I’m in the kitchen eying up the last two slices of bread in the packet on the counter, debating whether to make toast or save them for Demi’s lunch, when Summer sends me a pic of her late breakfast: chicken nuggets and a Muller yoghurt. I text her back: You freak. I’ve spotted a couple of blue, mouldy patches on the crusty end, but who even eats that? It’ll do. I open the top cupboard. There’s a small box of cornflakes left from one of those multi-packs that were on special offer weeks ago, a solid clump of coco pops in the bottom of a tall box, and two crumpets that are curling around the bottom.

I check out the freezer. We still have some fish fingers and smiley faces—I’ll cook them for Demi’s lunch if I have to.

Demi, my little sister, comes in as I pop the bread into the toaster. “Want toast,” she says.

“It’s mine,” I say.

This is the thing with kids—they think they can have everything they want because if they can see it, they assume it belongs to them. And it’s not that I begrudge my little sister a slice of toast, it’s that my thirty-something mother still has the same mentality. If she walked in right now, she’d say, “Stick some butter on a slice for me, Court.” She wouldn’t think to ask if we have more bread or give me a couple of quid to pop to the shop for more, or even wonder if I was making toast for myself before she claimed it.

By now, I’m clenching my fists and already mourning the loss of half my meal because I know Demi will kick off if I don’t share with her. “Do you want jam?” I ask, opening the refrigerator door. I take a deep breath. There’s barely enough jam in the bottom of the sticky-rimmed jar for one slice. I should’ve known because I’m the only one who eats it. “You’ll have to just have butter,” I say.

She blinks at me with her big blue eyes. Her face is pale, and her bottom lip is rolled out as if she’s going to cry.

“I’ll cook you chicken dippers,” I say quickly. If she starts bawling, I’ll have to think of something else to bribe her with. “It’ll take a little while though. Go and play in the living room until they’re ready.”

Demi doesn’t move. Normally I can read the thought process going on behind her eyes—nod like an angel or switch into full-on devil mode—but today her eyes look a bit vacant. “Feel sick,” she says.

“Are you hot?” I ask.

She shakes her head and shivers to prove the point. I place a hand on her forehead and she’s burning up like she has a fever.

“Stay there.” I switch on the cold tap and reach for the kitchen roll as Demi projectile-pukes on the floor, splashing my legs, and the cupboard doors.

The toaster chooses that moment to spit out my lunch.

Demi is crying now because she’s standing in a spreading puddle of puke and even though she spends half her life sifting through piles of dirt for woodlice and worms the way a baker would sift through flour for lumps, last night’s regurgitated pizza obviously isn’t as much fun.

My big brother Ritchie stops outside the kitchen door, takes one look at the mess and fake gags. He doesn’t even offer pretend sympathy but turns around and walks up the stairs, still gagging. That’s when I notice that he’s carrying a bundle of clothes.

“Ritchie, wait!” I tear off some kitchen roll, dip it under the running water, and wipe the splashes off my legs. “Ritchie!” He’s already gone up to the small attic room where he keeps his stuff when he’s here.

“Mum!” I yell, my voice swallowed by the rest of the house. I can smell JLo Glow, so I know she’s here. “Demi’s been sick!”

As if she’s only now realised that’s what’s happened, Demi’s wails grow louder, snot mingling with the dribble on her chin.

I wipe off the worst of it, Demi frozen to the spot. “Mum!” I try again. “You need to clean up Demi.” I crouch down in front of my little sister and hold her arms still. “Wait here for Mum, okay? Don’t go anywhere because you’ll walk it all over the house and I’m not cleaning that shit up. I need to speak to Ritchie, and I’ll be straight back.”

She nods. It’s all I’m going to get.

I run up the stairs, my shins feeling sticky. When I bound into the room at the top of the house, Ritchie is folding shirts on the window shelf that’s almost wide enough to be a single bed. A holdall is open on the floor and I can see his new trainers in the bottom, surrounded by rolled up socks.

“Where are you going?” I ask.

He glances at me and then carries on folding. “I’m sorry, Court,” he says in a thin voice.

“You’re leaving?”

He nods. “My dad’s got me a job.”

Ritchie’s dad lives in Glasgow. He was lucky enough to escape our mum when he realised that having babies gave her an excuse to get homed by the council, but not a reason to be faithful to one person. He’s dark-skinned and has large, kind eyes which he passed on to Ritchie, and even though he isn’t my dad, he has promised that I can go and stay with him and Ritchie when I’m old enough. It can’t come quick enough for me.

“What about me?” I sound like a spoilt kid, but I don’t care. “You promised.”

“And I’ll keep my promise.” Ritchie doesn’t look at me. “But this job is all over the place and I can’t leave you alone in Glasgow.”

I feel like the future is slipping away from me. I’ve seen pictures of Glasgow city, the busy streets, the bars, the murals, and now they’re shrinking away towards a tiny pinpoint in the distance where they’ll squeeze through a hole and vanish.

“When will you be back?”

“I don’t know. It depends.”

“On what?” I know Ritchie. This is what he does when he doesn’t want to give a direct answer, he gets all vague and edgy, like he’s trying to shift his inability to be straight onto the person asking too many questions.

“On the job.”

It occurs to me then that if I hadn’t been in the kitchen pondering the importance of toast in my life, I wouldn’t have even known. He’d have snuck up here, packed his stuff inside his holdall, and left without saying goodbye. “Were you even going to tell me?”

He stops then and straightens, flashing me the heartbreaker smile he saves for every other girl he meets. “Course I was. I’m not going today.”

“When then?”

“In a couple of days. You get the pleasure of my company for a bit longer.”

I wonder if that’s what girls fall for, this confidence in his own charm. He knows he’s good-looking but it’s not like he’s conceited or anything, he just accepts that girls drool over him and runs with it, like why waste a gift if it’s been handed to you on a plate.

“Please let me come,” I say. “I can’t stay here with her.”

He wraps his arms around me then and holds me close to his chest. He’s warm and muscly even though he never works out, and tears sting my eyes. “It won’t be for long,” he says. “Promise. And you’ve got Summer.”

I nod, my hair sticking to his T-shirt.

Demi appears in the doorway and I pull away from Ritchie. “I told you to stay in the kitchen. There’ll be sick everywhere now.” I grab her hand and drag her to the top of the stairs where I can see slimy footprints on each step. “Ugh. Demi!”

“Hey, chill.” Ritchie watches us from the doorway.

You don’t have to clean it up,” I say. I pick Demi up, her knees wrapping around my waist, and walk down the stairs avoiding the mess. “Mum!” I can’t believe she hasn’t materialised yet. Well, I can, but I’m annoyed with her for always being consistent.

We reach the kitchen where the puddle of vomit has two tiny foot-shaped prints in it, as our mum walks up the stairs from her basement bedroom. She’s wearing a shell-pink dress I’ve not seen before, a gold chain-belt slung around her waist, and strappy, gold sandals. She steps backwards when she sees the state of Demi.

“Keep her away from me,” she says.

“Are you going out?” I ask.

“No, I’m mopping the fucking floor. Course I’m going out.”

“She’s been sick. I’m not cleaning it up.” I know even before the words evaporate into the hallway and float upstairs that I’m wasting my breath. She knows it too. There’s only one person that’s going to sort Demi out and she isn’t wearing gold sandals.

“You can’t leave it, Court,” she says. “She reeks.”

She doesn’t make eye contact. This is what she does—she makes her own plans, sees them through regardless of what else is going on, and tells herself that we all survive without her. It’s like, in her world, kids don’t alter your life at all other than a few stretchmarks and bigger tits. It’s like she almost thinks we’re born self-sufficient.

“We need bread,” I say.

“You can take her out and get some.” She’s waiting for me to move so that she can reach the front door without her dress being tainted with the tang of baby-puke.

And, because I know it’s pointless arguing with her, I step aside and stand in the kitchen doorway, my back to the mess. “I’m going out later. You need to be back.”

“What time?” She’s checking the time on her phone, calculating how long she has.

“Six.” I know Summer won’t be ready by six, but I also know my mum will be late. She always leaves it till the last minute to be anywhere; I once told her during an argument that she’d be late for her own funeral and she told me I could waste my life counting seconds if I wanted, but she’d still be there enjoying herself.

“Jesus, Court,” she says. “I don’t know—”

“I’m going out whether you’re back or not, and there’ll be no one here with the kids, so suit yourself.”

She narrows her eyes at me. This will go one of two ways: she’ll either storm out and slam the door behind her, yelling at me to clear up the mess, or she’ll patch me completely and pretend the conversation never happened.

As I’m gearing myself up for the door to bounce on its hinges, Ritchie comes downstairs. “She’s coming out with me, Mum,” he says in his smoothest favourite-son voice. “Make sure you’re back.”

She looks at him and her expression softens. “I’ll be back,” she says, closing the door softly behind her.

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