“Are you sure about this?” Sam hesitated, her hand resting on the door one second ago she had been certain she was going to push open. The stillness after hours - weeks - building up to this moment gave space for the doubts she had been trying to ignore to pop up. She inhaled deeply and slowly counted to six as she let out her breath. “Yes, I’m sure. I know it isn’t exactly going to be a walk in the park,” she added quickly, her hand raised to silent her friend’s protestations, “but it needs to be done.” “But now? I mean, Sam, isn’t it a bit too soon? Are you sure you can… that you won’t…” “Relapse?” Sam smiled, her face softening in response to the concern on Debs’ face. She understood it – Debs had put up with a hell of a lot from her when she had been drinking, and she could see why the thought of her doing anything that might tip her back into an oblivion of Stella and Smirnoff might provoke such anxiety. But Sam knew that she had to do this – and tonight seemed like the perfect opportunity. “No, I’m not sure. But if I don’t do this, I know that I will end up drinking again. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually. This,” she gestured at the door, “needs to happen if I want to stay dry. And there’s no time like the present, right?” The brightness of her tone and smile didn’t seem to convince her old friend any more than it did herself. In reality, she was terrified. But she was even more terrified of leaving it, of walking away – and never finding the courage to put things right. * “The thing is, David, without the support of the police and the Council there is absolutely nothing we can do. We might as well give up now and just accept that this is how things are going to be around here.” “Absolutely not! We must and we will stand up to the hoodlums, these yobbos, and if the authorities won’t help us, we’ll do it on our own.” “So what exactly are you proposing? That we all head down there with pitchforks and try to drive them out ourselves? We’ll be the ones who end up getting nicked.” “Gentleman, ladies, please. Can we all just calm down a little bit and try to think logically about this?” Sam closed her eyes at the sound of his voice. She remembered with clarity how his self-assured whine used to knead her, how his smugness used to provoke. Whilst she still found the whole set up of the Neighbourhood Watch and its old aged membership cringe-worthy, at least now she understood why she used to react to her neighbour the way she did – and why, even after hours of soul-searching, she clearly still struggled to be in the same room as him. “Oh, John, we’ve got some latecomers! Ladies, do come in. Have you been to any of our meetings before? You certainly look familiar…” Sam let the elderly lady lead her away from the safety of the dark doorway and towards the middle of the room. The fusty smell of the wooden floor, years of shiny dirt rubbed into the grain, and P.E. kits, their damp aroma still present long after the children wearing them had gone home, reminded her of the church hall she had gone to after school before her uncle would pick her up and take her home. She felt her heart pound as her mind took her back. The silence of the room enveloped her and muffled her ears like he had done all those years before when he pushed her head into the cushions of his thread-bare sofa. She could feel the coarseness of the fabric against her skin now. “Well, well, well, look what the cat dragged in.” Sam squeezed her eyes closed tightly before opening them wide. I will not go there. I will stay present. She pushed her hand into her pocket and ran her fingers over the heart shaped stone she had been carrying around with her since she had left HMP Brimsdown. She let her skin read the word engraved across its’ cool curve. HOPE. Looking at the man in front of her, she took in every detail she could from his position across the hall. Her racing heart slowed to a steady jog as her observations offered her reassurance. Whilst her uncle had been present in her head, he wasn’t stood in front of her now. She took another steadying breath. “Hello John. I – I wanted to see you. Well, I wanted to see all of you, I suppose, but didn’t think you’d want to see me. So I thought I’d come along tonight. You know, where I knew you’d all be together, so I could get it over with, rip off the plaster quickly.” She laughed, the pitiful sound betraying the nervousness that her rambling introduction had already clearly illustrated. Heat spread up her neck and crawled across her face. “Did you now? Well, pray do tell what you have to get over with, what is so pressing that you felt you had to interrupt our meeting about it?” His laugh prickled the skin at the base of her skull. “Or had you come to finish off what you started when we last met in these parts?” He was walking slowly towards her, away from the table of spectators and empty coffee cups. He stopped a good few feet away, far enough for him to be able to escape if she lunged for him, but close enough for her to see the purple scar across his fleshy cheek. Seeing her mark and feeling the fear permeating his façade deepened the well of shame that she was so desperate to fill with something – anything - else. “Give her a break will you? She’s come here to apologise and all you can do is behave like a big bully.” Debs was by her side, her arm linked through Sam’s and gently squeezing it against her warm body in a secret hug. Sam felt her body release and soften at the contact. “Oh has she now? Well, go on, let’s hear it.” The silence threatened to overwhelm her, to make her run, to numb her from the reality around her like she’d learnt to do as a child when she hadn’t been able to run. Another squeeze from Debs stopped her wondering if the newsagent across the road sold booze before the thought had had a chance to lodge itself in her mind. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry what I did to you John. It was awful. There’s no excuse for it, but I wanted to tell you, to explain. You see, I’ve had a hard life and alcohol has always been an escape for me, a way of avoiding the pain. But sometimes even that doesn’t help and I…” “Take it out on someone else? Is that it?” “Oh, for heaven’s sake. It can’t have been easy coming here, and you’re not exactly making it any easier. Look! She’s shaking. Come on, dear, come and sit down.” Sam let the old dear who had greeted her lead her to the table and usher her into a chair. She heard tea being poured into a mug and started at it dumbly when it was placed in front of her. Gentle pressure on her shoulder made her look up. Debs smiled down at her. Sam’s eyes grew hot with appreciative tears. “Thank you.” She looked back at the mug of tea in front of her before scanning the faces around the table. She recognised some of them from her old estate, people she’d probably only spoken to before when they were confronting her after yet another binge. “I really appreciate it.” “That’s quite alright dear.” The same lady was sat next to her, her smile kind. “Thank you for coming to see us. It sounds like you’re trying to turn over a new leaf?” “Something like that.” Sam admitted, suddenly shy in the face of such warmth. It was something she wasn’t used to and, up until recently, had been highly suspicious of. Her uncle’s behaviour following any sign of generosity had seen to that, and it was only in prison that she had learnt that care of any sort could come without consequences. If fact, if the counsellor she had been told she should see hadn’t sat passively whilst Sam ranted, raved and did everything she could to push away the therapist’s unnerving acceptance, she knew she wouldn’t be sat in that room. She’d be in the pub - no, on the streets - with nothing but a bottle for company. “Oh lord, here come the crocodile tears again.” “John! I must insist, pipe down. Give the girl a chance.” Sam blinked at an older male who had stood up, leaning heavily on his stick. She recognised him, a local do-gooder politician, but couldn’t remember his name. “Well, young lady, if you are keen to start afresh, maybe you can help us out with our dilemma.” “Her kids are probably part of the problem.” “I doubt it,” she interrupted John before anyone could protest on her behalf. “Emma’s moved away. She’s with her dad. And Alex has been out of trouble for years and got kids of his own.” “Yes, her kids have sorted themselves out. And so has she.” Debs hands were on her shoulders, massaging them as vigorously as a ringside extra in Rocky. Sam looked around the table and caught the eye of the old dear who was looking at her carefully, a thought wrinkling her brow. “I’m wondering, when your children were – used to be a bit naughty,” she blushed as she waved away her gaffe, “what do you think would have helped you stop them?” Sam stared at her dumbly, her focus drifting past the woman’s face as she remembered all the visits from social workers, letters from the council and phone calls from the police station. The fog of voices had always failed to penetrate, their advice, warnings and reprimands falling on ears deafened to words that meant nothing from people who just didn’t understand. “I don’t know.” She admitted. “I just felt like everyone was talking at me, not to me, telling me what to do. Do you know what I mean?” Debs snorted behind her. “Yeah. Maybe if they’d tried listening to Sam and not just threatened to take her kids and home away all the time, she would have got the help she needed.” Sam looked up at her friend and smiled at her warmly. She squeezed the hand still resting on her shoulder. “Maybe, Debs. I think they just didn’t understand.” “But you do.” A younger bespectacled man peered at Sam from the end of the table, his face burning under the sudden scrutiny caused by his contribution. “I mean, you might be able to understand those whose kids are causing problems now.” His gaze flitted over his audience. “Maybe you could talk to them, let them know that change is possible.” John snorted. “I think it’s a bit early to make that call, Sean.” He glared at Sam. “She’s hardly stood the test of time has she?” “No. But I’d like to help if I can, make amends. And this is a way I might be able to.” The words were out of her mouth before their meaning had really taken form, but they felt right. She realised she had stood up and was facing John, who was still gaping at her from across the table. She looked away, suddenly unsure of herself. “Well. Anything you think you can do to help would be greatly appreciated, wouldn’t it John?” The old politician beamed at her, the credit for the restorative intervention he would be able to claim as his own suddenly brightening his face. “Indeed.” John’s tone as he reeled off his list of offenders made clear his scepticism. Sam recognised most the names, and knew a handful pretty well. She closed her eyes as she imagined knocking on the doors of her old drinking pals, mates she used to slag off the likes of John to as they cracked open yet another four pack. “Anti-social behaviour” the bold back letters at the top of those letters screamed, almost as accusatory as those announcing her court summons for rent arrears. She could see the disbelieving faces of her comrades now. “Just tell them your story. Show them you understand, that you know what it’s like. That’s all.” The old dear smiled kindly. Sam smiled back uncertainly. “I guess that’s all I can do.” “Good. That’s settled then.” The politician pushed himself out of his chair and tottered towards the door. Pausing, he turned back to the table. “Are we done?” A good-natured grumble rose from the table as the other panel members scraped back their chairs to follow his lead. “So you’ll be back next time? To let us know how you get on?” Sam turned to the question. The bespectacled man, Sean, blinked back at her. She looked around the room. Debs looked back at her, her eyes darting pointedly towards the door. Sam met John’s eye and held his gaze. His bank expression gave nothing away. “Okay. If I’m invited that is?” “Of course you are my dear. Both of you.” The old woman clucked around her and Debs, gathering them towards her in a conspiratory huddle. “We need some new blood around here. And some young blood at that.” “Well I don’t know about young, but flattery will get you everywhere.” Debs giggled nervously. She nudged Sam with her elbow, her face falling as she followed her gaze. “Sam?” “I’ll be here.” Sam kept her eyes on John as she heard Debs exhale theatrically. He snorted a silent laugh and smiled. Sam was about opened her mouth, to call him on his derogatory smirk, when she saw a glimpse of something else in his eyes. Something like recognition. Respect.