Something bad has happened…..
He was almost sure.
No-one had told him, but then they didn’t tell him much anyway. He heard little bits and pieces of what was going on, but because it all went on literally over his head, he missed parts, so it didn’t always make sense.
He was only five years old, after all, and sometimes grown-ups spoke about such boring stuff, and he did love that new Matchbox car his sister had given him. Just like that, too, and no-one ever just got a present in his house, not without it being a birthday or Christmas.
A perfect little red Aston Martin, “just like James Bonds” – even though he only had a vague idea who that might be, he knew enough to know it was a Big Deal.
It hadn’t been wrapped up like a present, but the box was pretty special, and it was now the garage his car slept in at night, after he had carefully parked it.
He remembered his sister crouching down next to him and putting the bright box on his lap. “There, “ she said, “That’s for being such a good boy.” And she had looked over towards his dad, who was watching but said nothing, and had no expression on his face at all.
And that was the thing – he hadn’t been a good boy. Oh, maybe she didn’t know yet that he’d torn the sleeve of his jumper when he tried to escape through the hedge from the Red Indians. Or that it had been him who had chipped the milk jug – by accident, of course, he just didn’t want the aliens to land on it.
She did know that he hadn’t eaten his liver, but had slipped it under the table, hoping the cat would find it. Because he had seen her find it after he got down from the table – a horrible bit of brown stuff, lying under his chair like something the cat had dragged in instead of something he had hoped the cat would drag out.
But she didn’t tell him off. She didn’t heave a big sigh, or tell him there were starving children somewhere he had never heard of. She picked it up and took it over where it was too high for him to tell properly what she did with it. He rather hoped she had chopped it up for the cat anyway.
Mum would have told him off. But then Mum knew he didn’t like liver, so she would always give just him the mash, peas and onions with gravy, and that was just great.
But Mum wasn’t here. She hadn’t been for a while now. He wasn’t exactly sure how long it had been, but his sister had been doing most of the mum-stuff since then, even if she didn’t know all the important things, like not to give him liver. She was ever so much older than him, a grown-up really, married and living somewhere else, although he was sure she had lived in his house not so long ago. But there were things she didn’t know.
He didn’t know how his mum knew all those things: how he liked his sandwich cut in a box shape, not a triangle; how he liked to have his forehead stroked as he drifted off to sleep; how much he liked in a cup when he had a drink; how he was a big boy now and could dress himself (mostly) but sometimes he just liked her to help a bit. Mum just knew these things. And now she wasn’t there, no-one knew.
His sister filled his cup to the top. She put his clothes on the bed and left him to it, never knowing about the tears of frustration that welled up when he couldn’t do up the buttons, or got his arm through the neck of his jumper and wasn’t sure how to fix it. Mum would just be there, not saying a lot but knowing when he needed help, and when he wanted to do it by himself.
He didn’t know how to tell his sister these things. Mostly he didn’t realise until it was too late, when Mum would already have done it right. Then, the next time when she did it wrong again, he felt stupid that he hadn’t told her the first time. He also wasn’t sure how you went about explaining things to grown-ups. No-one in his house ever really explained stuff, so it was a tricky skill to learn.
That was why tonight, after his dad had tucked him into bed and gone back down, he had waited a little bit and then tiptoed down the stairs. He settled his pyjama-covered bottom on the lowest step, only a few feet from the living room door, and waited for someone to say something about when Mum was coming home, so he would know at last.
He had thought about it a lot. He knew he had been naughty and had made Mum tired – Dad had said she was too tired, and that’s why she was in bed a lot.
But then one day, she wasn’t in the bed, or in the kitchen, or in the garden. He couldn’t find her, and his sister was there, doing his porridge wrong and filling his cup with milk so he knew there would be a mess. And everybody was acting just the same as always. The only difference was Mum wasn’t there, but no-one ever said anything about it, so he didn’t ask.
He could hear voices in the living room, but not really what they were saying. He shifted on the step a little, starting to feel chilly. Then he heard Susan, speaking a little louder than before.
“Dad, he doesn’t know. He needs to know! It breaks my heart! He must miss her!” He thought he could hear a funny noise, did his sister maybe have a cold?
“He hasn’t asked, so let’s just leave it,” he heard his dad say. “Maybe it’s better if he doesn’t.”
He shifted again, shivering, and the step creaked beneath him. The door opened, flooding the hall with light and the sound of voices from the telly. His dad stood in the doorway in silhouette, like a giant. Half expecting to be in trouble, the boy rose to his feet.
His dad stepped forward and took his hand. “Come on, boy, let’s get you back to bed,” he said, leading him up the stairs to his room. He waited for the words, all the way, but his dad said nothing. He was tucked into bed, still waiting almost fearfully. Mum would have told him how silly he was, and all about catching a cold and stuff like that.
But all his dad did was look at him, lying there still waiting; he quietly said “Night night,” and left he room. The boy heard every step his dad took back down the stairs, and then the telly noises subside as the door closed.
That’s when he knew for certain: Mum wasn’t coming back. Something terrible had happened and they weren’t going to tell him.
And there could only be one reason for that. With all the certainty in his five year old mind, the boy knew for sure that it was his fault.