It was rare for Alex to come home and find his father still conscious. Cans of strong lager lying on the carpet; a cigarette stub smouldering between his fingers; the electricity meter run out again; nothing to eat. Alex used to try to prise a few coins out of his father's pocket to take down to the chip shop. He didn't really know what to do, how the washing machine worked, if it worked, how to get new clothes, where his mum was. So he cut himself.
In that moment, the moment of incision with his dad's razor, with one of the needles still left on his mother's chest of drawers, with the jagged, dripping edge of the lid to a tin of baked beans, it all seemed so simple. There was just the narrowed focus, the blade, the flesh, the blood. And no one else had power, to wound, to withdraw.
When Alex turned 14, his mum came back. The rows were ferocious, prolonged, repetitive. But at least there was food and clean clothes. Alex began to smoke. He and his mum used to share a cigarette over the kitchen table while his dad snored on the settee. One day, as they were talking, Alex took the cigarette and touched the skin on his wrist with it. His mum gasped. Alex ground the glowing tip slowly, thoughtfully into the soft skin inside his sweatshirt. It smelt like a barbecue. His mum screamed and slapped him on the side of his head. "What you want to go and do that for?" Why not, thought Alex, why not?
You couldn't really say that Alex has friends, but there are people he hangs around with, people who get into sorts of trouble like vandalism and joyriding. Alex doesn't commit himself to trouble. He's on the fringes. It's where he's used to being. Never does his homework, never speaks in class but never acts up either. "I can't make him out," says his form tutor, who has never seen the long line of scars and scabs on his arms.
Alex is in his last year of school now, killing time before he goes out into the world and a whole lifetime of killing time. It's hard to see Alex as a front-runner in the employment stakes. Something seems to stop him concentrating, something that rakes at his thoughts with hot claws, something that he can let out when he stabs or burns himself. Recently, he has found out that if he tanks himself up on cider and then runs at the wall he can knock himself half-out. That really stops the thinking.
And what is it that Alex is thinking? He's thinking, "You're shit, you are, you're shit. You'll never amount to anything. I bloody hate you, I do, you worthless piece of garbage. Get out, get out, get out."
And who is he talking to?