His whole life there has only been two constants. His Dad and older brother think he's worthless and Jamie and Leah think he's wonderful. He's beginning to think that maybe he's been believing the wrong people.
Sometimes he wishes he could be 14 again. Before he stretched, before he was fair game to act as his Dad's punch bag, rather than just his brother's, before he stopped standing up for Jamie, before he started standing by him. Before he felt at war with everything he'd thought he knew about himself.
He's always loved swimming, the way it gives him an excuse to be alone, to escape, even if half the time the person he's trying to escape from is himself. He worked through all the badges years ago, these days the only person he need to compete against is himself; number of lengths, fastest time, always improving that personal best. One of the instructors pulls him aside one day, suggests lifeguard training and he takes to it like a duck to water. The staff give him approving nods and smiles, and suggest that there might be a job for a boy like him if he sticks in at school. Turns out that swimming could be an altogether different kind of escape after all.
He likes his job; he's good at it. The money shuts his dad up for a while, gets his brother shouted at for not bringing anything in. It's weird without Jamie and Sandra through the wall, but it does mean a pub he can always get served in and when he needs to get away from his family it feels like a proper escape. Jamie's helping his mum run that pub of hers but Sandra always makes sure their days off match up, and somehow that feels more like acceptance than coming down the Gloucester with them. Leah's still two down, and the quiet moments sharing a fag, watching the rain and listening to her singing slightly off key makes up for the times when he has to pull her down from the balcony or kick her room door in for her mother when Leah's too high to care about anything anymore.
Of course all good things come to an end, or maybe a start. When he's cooking tea one night and his dad starts having a go something snaps inside, he doesn't shout back or anything stupid like that, just has a realisation. He carries on, serves tea, eats it and goes to his room. He's packing methodically when his brother comes in, doesn't say anything just watches him. He's got the front door open before his brother starts to speak, ranting away about something or another, about how Ste needs them, about not coming crawling back and Ste doesn't say a damn thing, just smiles and walks away. Leah's leaning on the balcony, its been raining all day but its stopped now, the air feels weirdly clean for this city. He's tells her he's had an epiphany and she tells him he'll have to learn to spell it before he can have one. It makes him smile properly then as she goes off on one of her rambling rants and he realises that he's going to miss her, which is just plain weird. He's trying to get a word in edgeways, when he realises that she already knows he's leaving, not cause of the bag, but more like she's been waiting for this day for months. So when he gets his words out he asks her to come with him instead.
They walk to the bus stop, hand in hand which is again rather weird; as he's pretty sure the last time he held hands with a girl he was six. She shoves him onto the bus when it comes and when he tries to pull her on after him she bats him away and starts belting out Mama Cass until the bus driver starts cursing her and drives off. He supposes she's right; she's been making her own music her whole life, maybe its time for him to make his. He's just glad he doesn't have to sing it alone.
He tells Sandra that's its just for a few days until he finds his feet. She looks at him funny like she's not sure whether to nod and humour him or ask him if he thinks she's soft in the head. It ends up being a few weeks and when he leaves Jamie comes with him. Sandra calls their flat a garret and Jamie yells back that it's practically a penthouse after the estate, but Ste just calls it home. It's got two bedrooms; more because they both need their space than for appearances sake, it's handy to have somewhere to storm off to close at hand. They have culinary disasters that nearly burn the flat down, hold parties that nearly get them evicted and have stupid arguments about things they can't remember for the life of them afterwards.
They have really good make up sex and quiet moments afterwards that are every bit as good. When Jamie asks he can be entirely honest in telling him that this feels right. He's not used to this being happy thing, but he's stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop and that in itself feels like a kind of victory.
Leah tells him sagely one night that men always leave. They're both drunk but not enough that he can't see the bruise under all her slap. He knows she counts him and Jamie under that, in their tiny tatty flat that isn't much but isn't the estate; he doesn't argue though. Doesn't mention that sometimes women leave too and that sometimes they're right to. Instead he lets her sleep on the couch and tries not to worry too much when she's gone in the morning. Sometimes he thinks his life would be so much easier if he could just have fancied Leah; that they could have looked after each other somehow. It's a good theory right up until there's solid arms round his chest and an improbably pointed chin digging into his shoulder, muttering about really needing to find Leah that green-eyed lesbian. He could no more swap Leah for Jamie then he could learn to fly, and he's beginning to be alright with that. He's fairly sure she is too.