Thank you to everybody who is reading and reviewing, it honestly means so much to me.
Our little girl is growing up - and look who else is here! I'm excited to finally be writing this section in Carla's life.
It's up to you guys how much time you would like me to dedicate to Carla's school days. I can either have it over in a few chapters, or I can spend a bit longer developing her teenage relationships before concentrating on her adult life.
Please let me know your thoughts, and I hope you enjoy this chapter!
2nd September 1986
As Carla pulled her front door shut behind her, she stopped to quickly roll the waistband of her school skirt over a couple of times. There was no way that she was going to her first day at secondary school dressed like a nun, but if she'd tried to leave the flat showing off a little too much of her thighs, her hot-headed stepfather would have forced her to stay at home. Satisfied, she slung her heavy schoolbag over her shoulder and headed down the road in the direction of the town's only upper school. She wasn't phased by being let into the big wide world on her own at the tender age of eleven; she and her brother had been playing in the streets since they'd been small.
Meanwhile, Johnny turned into the street, clutching a carrier bag from the shop on the corner. He'd had to make an early-morning milk run after finishing off the rest of it the night before – he had a two-year-old son who would throw the tantrum of all tantrums if he couldn't have Coco Pops for his breakfast. He broke into a grin as he spotted the well-dressed young girl shuffling along the pavement, hauling a bag that was almost the size of her.
"Morning, kiddo," he called to her. She spun around to face him, and flashed him a toothy smile of her own.
"Hiya!" she sung, dropping her bag to the pavement beside her. When they met, Carla threw her arms around Johnny's neck, something that she'd been accustomed to doing ever since deciding that he was a friend who truly cared about her and her brother's welfare.
"Look at you!" She grinned and twirled around in front of him, finishing in a pose with her hand on her hip.
"Do you like it? My blazer's a bit big, but Mum reckons it gives me "room to grow"." Carla rolled her eyes, making air quotes with her fingers.
"You look fantastic, sweetheart. New shoes an' all?" Johnny asked, proudly. Sure, the new uniform had cost him a small fortune, but seeing the young girl looking so polished for once made every penny worth it. Carla nodded, excitedly.
"Yup. And I've got trainers for P.E."
"Well, aren't you a spoilt little thing?" Johnny teased her, nudging her shoulder, playfully. His eyes came to rest on the hemline of her skirt, and he furrowed his brow. "Your skirt's a bit small, though."
"No it's not. It's meant to be like that."
"You'll get yourself into trouble, young lady."
"Er, who made you my dad?" It was clear that Carla was only messing around, but the words sent a pang of sadness through Johnny's chest. He felt such a draw towards being protective of Carla, and it hurt him immensely that she didn't understand why he treated her with more than mere neighborly concern.
"You're not walking to school, are you?"
"No, I thought I'd take my private jet that's parked 'round the corner."
"You can tell where you get your lip from. Why don't I give you a lift in? It's your first day," Johnny offered, trying to mask the hint of hope in his voice. Carla pondered the offer for a moment, before decisively shaking her head.
"Nah, I might as well start how I mean to go on. Besides, they'll only think I'm the weird kid who isn't allowed to walk to school on their first day."
"You're only eleven, Carla."
"Ta for the memo." Johnny couldn't help but chuckle at the youngster's quick wit and sharp retorts. With her long, dark hair in loose waves that cascaded down her back, and her green eyes sparkling with mischief, nobody would expect such clever comments to escape her lips.
"Let me walk with you, then," he tried again, but Carla's eyes widened and she firmly shook her head.
"Do you want me to get bullied?" Suddenly, Johnny spotted a familiar figure turn the corner into the street, mooching in their direction, kicking a battered football between his feet. An idea popped into his head.
"'Ey, Liam!" he called to the boy, who looked up, startled, before relaxing and raising a hand in greeting.
"Morning, Uncle Johnny," the boy replied.
"Come 'ere a sec." Carla watched in curiosity as the boy tucked his ball under his arm and jogged over to them. His hair was disheveled, and his school shirt untucked at the back, his blazer tossed over his shoulder, discarded in the warmth of the end of the summer. He nodded to her, running his eyes over her and giving her a small smile.
"Hiya," he mumbled, somewhat shyly. His voice was still fairly high-pitched and had yet to develop the deepness of maturity, which therefore suggested to Carla that he must be around her own age.
"Carla, this is my nephew, Liam. He lives with his mum and dad a few streets away," Johnny explained, before turning to the young boy, "Liam, Carla is-"
"I know who she is," Liam interrupted, the name jarring a memory, "She's Sharon Donovan's kid. We see her playing out with her brother sometimes."
"Good, then you won't mind walking her to school, because it's her first day and she's only eleven."
"You don't have to do that," Carla quickly insisted, a slight pink tinge appearing in her cheeks, "Honestly, Uncle Johnny, I'll be good and I won't talk to any strangers." She smiled at Liam, before hoisting her bag onto her shoulder once again. "It was nice to meet you." She turned on her heel and hastily scurried back down the path, though, seconds later, she became conscious of footsteps behind her.
"'Ere, slow down, will you? It's only ten to eight," came Liam's voice once again.
"I'm fine. I don't need a babysitter." Despite her words, Carla slowed her steps as she felt a hand on her shoulder. He was only touching her lightly, but she was surprised at how strong his hand felt for such a young boy.
"I'm not babysitting you. It's lonely on my own, anyway," Liam joked, falling into step beside her.
Johnny watched the pair as they rounded the corner, satisfied that Carla was safe now. He felt a weird ache in his chest; a mixture of pride, and sadness that she wasn't a little girl anymore.
"Why'd you call him 'Uncle Johnny', anyway?" Liam asked. Carla hesitated, before shrugging.
"Dunno. I've never really thought about it. Just always have. He's dead over-protective, though."
"I've got a sister. She's ten, and I wouldn't want her walking all the way to Salford Comp on her own. She wouldn't even know the way."
"You do it."
"I'm twelve." Liam's chest swelled at this, and a confident smirk appeared on his lips, "And I'm a boy. We're stronger."
"No, you're not."
"We are. Mr Kusk'll tell you that in Science."
"Well, you're only a kid. You'd hardly be able to take on a massive bloke who wants to nick your wallet, would you?" Carla pointed out. Swiftly, she moved her foot in front of Liam's and stole his football from him, before kicking it a few feet in front of them and into the grass. Impressed, Liam raised his eyebrows.
"Not bad for a girl. Where'd you learn that?"
"Kid brother. Not all girls are useless. Some of us learn how to fight for ourselves." Carla's words sounded off-the-cuff, but thoughts of her turbulent home life flooded her mind. Images of her cruel stepfather approaching her mother, she and Robbie cowering in a corner, or him sneaking into her room at night so that they could both hide under the covers and try to ignore the thunder of shouting and the smashing of glass in the next room. Safety in numbers. George had married her mother the previous year. There was no big ceremony or pretty dresses or flashy parties, like the weddings that other children in her class had been to. Carla had just come home from school one day to the news that George was now her stepfather by law. Sharon hadn't even cracked a smile when she'd told her. Quickly, Carla shook herself out of her daze as she and Liam stepped through the school gates. "Thanks for making sure I didn't look like a loser walking here with Uncle Johnny running along behind me." Liam chuckled.
"You'll be the envy of Year 7 now. Walking in with a hot older boy," he teased. Carla rolled her eyes.
"You're so full of yourself."
"Do you know where you're going?"
"No, but I'm sure I'll work it out."
"Want me to meet you here at three o'clock?" Carla blinked in surprise, cocking her head slightly to one side and studying her companion. She'd never really had friends. It was almost impossible when you were unable to bring other kids home, or when you hadn't ever had a birthday party or couldn't give the whole class Christmas cards. The concept of somebody being nice to her was an alien one.
"You really don't have to just because we live near each other."
"Like I said, it's lonely on my own. And besides, you're alright. For a girl." Liam grinned at her, and for the first time in a long time, she felt a genuine bubble of happiness rising in her stomach.
"Thanks…" she replied, unsure of what to say to someone whose words were so full of kindness, "Then I guess I'll see you at three." Liam nodded awkwardly, stuck his hands into his trouser pockets, and headed in the direction of the technology block, his football still glued to his skilled feet.