I wasn't expecting the second great collapse of my life to begin with cake, certainly not cherry and almond cake. I knew it was coming at some point, yes; I'd been waiting for the other shoe to drop since I'd snuck out of my parents' house, at midnight on a stormy Tuesday three weeks before. It was only the cake that seemed wrong, and the kindness.
"Is that you, Julie love?" a woman's voice called as I crossed the threshold of the house. My copied key was still in the lock, my arm jerked upwards and it stuck there, my pom-pom charm hanging off it like evidence. What to say? I made a sort of humming noise and shook the traitorous key until it jangled out of the lock.
"We're in the sitting room," she continued. I scuffed off my shoes and looked desperately up the stairs, down the hallway, for a glimpse of Julie. She was nowhere to be seen. "Come in and have a slice of cake!"
"Erm. It's not Julie, actually. It's Faye," I eventually said. I'd tiptoed to the very edge of the sitting-room carpet, only the very end of my nose actually inside the room. "Julie's friend. She said to come round."
"Lent you her door-key, did she," rumbled the man in the armchair, but his voice overlapped with the woman's brighter tone: "Hello, Faye. Don't stand out there in the hallway, dear. You can come and sit down till Julie gets back."
They were drinking tea out of the nice china and the woman, obviously Julie's mum, insisted on pouring me a cup. Did I want milk? Sugar? I tried to smile and answer her questions like a normal person. We hadn't used the teapot since I'd been staying there except as a sort of joke, the night we'd done mushrooms, to steep them in. I hoped we'd washed it up well afterwards.
The man was dark-haired, thick-featured, with a permanent groove across his forehead that made him seem much sterner than he otherwise would have. The woman was younger. She had Julie's eyes in a face that bore no other resemblence to her. She told me to call them by their first names, though I don't recall, now, what those were. She gave me two pieces of cake and told me stories of their extended vacation, just finished, as if this was entirely news to me. I managed to keep smiling until Julie came home and pulled me upstairs to "do homework."
"Shit. Shit. I don't believe they came back early!" She paced fiercely in the cramped space between her bed, the camp bed (folded up, never used since the first night) and my bags of belongings.
"They didn't ... seem so bad," I said hesitantly.
"Faye, they're beyond bad, they're a nightmare. I told you. And now what'll we do? They might let you stay over tonight, but they'll want to call your mum and dad and then that's it, it's all over."
"Well, they can't call my mum and dad. I just won't give them the number." I shrugged. "I deleted it off my phone when I left, even."
"They're going to find a way to ruin everything," she said darkly.
We stared at one another until her father's voice echoed up the stairs. "Girls, come and set the table for supper! It's spaghetti bolognese."
Julie's parents let me sleep over that night, with barely a raised eyebrow. We made panicked plans in her room after dark, debating what to ask and how much to explain until both of us were red-eyed and frustrated.
"Honestly, Faye, I wish I could just leave like you did." Julie's fingertips touched my shoulder as if they'd travelled a long way to get there. We hadn't spoken for a good ten minutes, just sat hunched at opposite ends of the bed. I wasn't sulking. I wasn't sure about her.
She stroked me like a cat and, little by little, I leaned over towards her. She scooted across the bedsheet so my head could rest in her lap.
"Leave with me, then."
"I —" she started, and then the door banged open and we leapt apart as if an earthquake had shaken the room.
"Midnight snack?" asked Julie's mum, standing there in a dressing gown with a plate in her hand. "We're off to bed, so don't make any noise, but why don't you two finish off the cake?"
We told them the truth the next morning, the version of it we'd workshopped into the small hours. Nothing about drugs or whatever was going on between us, and certainly not how long I'd been living there, but the easy stuff, like the black eye I'd caught off my dad that time. I'd even prepared a photo album on my phone with the pictures that would best support our case. Julie's mum's lower lip trembled. Her dad shook his head and promised to get in touch with his brother, the youth social worker.
Of course I could stay. Of course they'd do their best to help a friend of Julie's.
I was just starting to feel safe again by the afternoon, when I walked past the sitting room and overheard Julie's mother making a phone call.
"... I think we've got your little runaway staying with us, Mrs da Souza. Yes, your daughter Faye ... She's a friend of my daughter, Julie. I looked you up in the phone book. Now, obviously I don't know all the ins and outs of what's happened between you, but it's a terrible shame when parents and children can't agree ..."
I ran up the stairs to Julie's room like a thunderstorm and grabbed my biggest bag. "I've got to go. Your mum's called my parents."
She was sitting on the bed, watching a makeup video on YouTube. "What?"
"She's on the phone to them right now. She's probably already told them your address. I've got to go."
"I told you they'd ruin everything."
"Come with me."
The video was still playing in the background, a Japanese girl's voice reciting a list of eyeshadows probably only available in Japan. Julie shook her head. "I mean, I can't come with you. I can't just get up and leave home."
"I suppose not, not with everything you've got going for you here." I shouldered the rucksack, shoved my pyjamas and deodorant into my other bag, and walked out of the room.
Other stuff happened after that, of course. In the end there was a fight on the front drive, the police came, my dad was charged with breaking one of the big plant pots on Julie's parents lawn, and I got put into care. I didn't talk to Julie for months and even then, everything felt different. All I could think of, whenever I tried to remember what we'd shared or dreamed or planned, was that cherry and almond cake.