They don't get an ambulance for Niker. Turns out he can stand after all. But he does have to go to Casualty on account of the gash above his right eye. Niker's dad arrives to collect him. His dad. At the hospital they clean him up and put on those butterfly sutures they use these days instead of stitches. The nurse who sticks him together is Irene Watson. I know this because Irene Watson is a friend of my mother's. When Niker tells Irene, by way of conversation, that he's been duffed up by a maniac called Robert Nobel, Irene tells my mum. Naturally enough, Mum calls Niker a liar and informs Irene that there is no way her son would hit anyone, least of all a boy like Jonathan Niker. She is in mid-flow apparently (she has had enough of that Jonathan Niker, is going to go into school and sort out the situation once and for all), when someone finally brings her the message: your son's school called, they have him in cold storage, perhaps you'd care to go and collect him?
You'd expect her to be angry. I expect her to be angry. What I'm not expecting is what I actually see on her face when she arrives: terror. It is as though some deep part of her believes that, this time, her son really has lost it. It's that look, that fear, that finally puts my brain back inside my body. Up until this moment I've been drifting. Sitting in the room they call ‘The Chiller’, a bleak little place next to the Headmaster's study, and listening to the talk. And they've all been talking: Mr Orde, Head of Pastoral Care; Mr Blacket, Headmaster; Miss Raynham; even Catherine. All of them talking and discussing and being reasonable. And if they've asked me questions, and they have, I've answered them, but only in the way you do when the question isn't really very important. Regret and remorse are words that have been bandied about. And I think I've been asked if I feel either of these things. But the truth is I've had very little in the way of feelings for the last couple of hours, either for myself or for Niker. But the moment I see my mum's face I want to say sorry.
I see some of her fear drain away then. She walks over to where I'm standing alone and puts her arms about me. Then she says, lioness-fierce: “Things haven't been easy for Robert at home. If it's anybody's fault it s mine.”
The Head of Pastoral Care ahems and then Mr Blacket starts a speech about how he knows it's a first offence but in the light of the severity of the physical attack, not to mention the damage to school property, they have no option but to exclude me. We will be receiving a letter about how long the exclusion will be for, but it is unlikely to be for less than a week. There's some more discussion and Mr Orde mentions “counselling” more than once. Finally, Mum says: “Robert looks exhausted. May I take him home now?”
It's the middle of the afternoon but she makes me hot milk and puts me to bed. I sleep. When I wake at 8pm she asks me no questions except what I'd like in my sandwiches. Then I sleep again until the morning.
At breakfast, she sits with me, which she doesn't always, and says:
“Now would you like to tell me what all this is really about?”
Afterwards, I realise she must have been asking me for a different story. But of course there isn't a different story. There's only the truth and when I try and tell it she exclaims: “That wretched coat!” And when I say how that wretched coat could save Mrs Sorrel's life and how Niker was tearing it, breaking it, and so maybe breaking Mrs Sorrel's life, all that happens is that the fear comes back into her eyes.
“I'm going to ring your father,” she says and puts the phone on
“This is not a convenient time,” says Dad.
“It's never a convenient time for you,” says Mum. “It wasn't a particularly convenient time for me yesterday afternoon when I was called at the hospital by your son's school and told to collect him because he was being excluded for beating up another child.”
“What!” says Dad.
“You heard. And if you want to hear more, perhaps you’d care to make a visit.”
“This really isn't fair, Annie. You know perfectly well that the earliest time I can visit is Friday and that's when Robert has his…thing.”
‘Not any more he doesn't,” says Mum. “No school. No Sharing. So Friday will be a fine time. See you then.” She puts down the phone.
“What!” I say.
“He's coming Friday.”
“But the Sharing! No-one’s said anything about me being excluded from the Sharing.”
“Since the flashpoint for the fight, as I understand it,” says Mum grimly, “was work for the Sharing, I hardly think they're going to invite you back to run amok in the Home, do you?”
“But I have to be there!”
“Sorry, Robert. No.”
“But they haven't said anything about the Sharing. No-one’s mentioned it!”
“Well, I'm mentioning it. You're not only excluded, you are grounded, young man. So even if they do say you can go, I say you can't. Finito. End of story. Right now it's more important for you to see your dad.”
“Not to me, it isn't. Not to Mrs Sorrel!”
“Robert, look at me…”
I look at her.
“In less than five minutes I have to leave for work. If I don't leave, and I've thought about not leaving, then I will probably lose my job as well as my mind. If I lose my job, neither of us will be able to eat. So you have to promise me, Robert, not to leave the house. Not to go anywhere near the school. Not to go near the Home. In short, not to go out. Robert. Do you understand me?”
“I understand you.”
“I promise not to go… near the school.”
“Yes, yes, I said it didn't I?”
She puts on her coat. “You've got your work sheets, haven't you?”
“Yes. Ten pages of maths. Can't wait.”
“Well, I want to see all of it done by the time I get back.”
“What time will you be back?”
“What do you take me for? A fool? I could be back any time,” she announces. “Bye now. And Robert?”
“I love you.”
I watch her go. I’m not such a fool either. Most of her shifts are eight hours, and the journey to the hospital adds at least three-quarters of an hour each way, longer if she's returning home between four and five. So I reckon I have plenty of time, which is good, because I need plenty of time. I have to get into school and find the coat. I have to retrieve the two feathers Niker broke and get more feathers from the graveyard and the beach. And, most important of all, I have to get to Mrs Sorrel. Check she's all right. I promised Ernest. “Don't leave it too long before you come again,” he said. And I said: “I promise.” Surely this promise, made first, takes precedence over the promise I made Mum? Especially as I also promised Mrs Sorrel I'd make the coat. And in any case, a promise to save someone's life has to be more important than a promise to abide by some rule and regulation made up by a school. Doesn't it? Doesn't it!
So how come every time I try to put my jacket on I hesitate? It's 8.15 and I'm still dithering by the front door, jacket half on half off, when the bell rings. It makes me jump. Mum says I should never open the door without looking through the spyhole first. I open the door without looking through the spyhole. It's Kate.
“Hi,” she says.
“Can I come in?”
I am not allowed into the outside world, but no-one has said anything about the outside world coming into my home. “Sure,” I say and stand aside. Kate Barber, she of the irresistible dimple, walks into my hall.
“I was just on my way to school,” she says (which as we know from the relative geography of her house and mine cannot be true), “and I thought I'd stop by. To see how you are.”
“To see how I am?” I motion the angel into the kitchen. She sits down at the kitchen table. “I'm fine.” Anyone would be fine whose dimpled angel had finally consented to come into their house and sit at their kitchen table.
She raises an eyebrow.
“I've been excluded,” I add.
“Yes, I heard…”
There's a pause.
“How's Niker?” I ask.
“I went to see him last night.”
“Oh?” A surge of disappointment. She visited him too. And first.
“He's OK. Physically all right, that is. But I think he's quite shocked.”
There’s a silence. Then I ask the thing that's been troubling me. “Why didn't he hit me back?”
“He did.” She looks at me curiously. “Or tried to. Don't you remember?”
“Not exactly.” And I don't remember exactly. The events of the afternoon have congealed into a red blur.
“He just couldn't connect. You were too strong for him.”
“Too strong for Niker?”
“Yes. You got bigger. Right in front of my eyes. You grew.”
“That's what Mrs Sorrel said. she said I'd got bigger. But I think she meant inside.”
“But it was sort of inside. As though there was something or someone inside you doing the fighting. A Hercules. A superman. Whatever Niker did, he couldn't have won. It was as if you had the moral right of the whole world on your side.”
“Hitting people is wrong,” I mention.
“Oh, I know. And it was horrible too. Seeing you pound him like that. And part of me kept thinking, it's not his fault, leave him alone…” She trails off and then she pulls something from her bag. “Here, I brought you something.”
It is the coat of feathers.
“Oh thank you, Kate. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I gather the coat to me. “You don't know what this means to me.”
“Yes, I do,” she say. “That's it really, that's what I saw yesterday. This isn't just a piece of art or a bunch of feathers, is it? It's something else. Something bigger.”
“Yes,” I say.
“Can you tell me?”
“It's…it's Mrs Sorrel's life,” I say. Kate doesn't laugh. “That's what I was fighting for. Her life.” Kate's face does not fill with fear. I tell her everything. Pour it out, overwhelmed with gratitude to be able to talk to someone who is prepared to listen. “So you see,” I conclude, “I have to finish the coat and I have to go to the Sharing.”
“How did you get the coat anyway?” I ask.
“Told Miss Raynham that Catherine needed it, that she'd asked me to fetch it.”
“I don't know how to thank you.”
“You already have. Now - what else can I do?”
“I need more feathers. From the graveyard. Pigeon feathers. Or from the beach. As many as you can. I have to finish the coat quickly. And I also need those feathers Niker broke. At least the grey one. The Chance House feather. That triggered Mrs Sorrel, that started her desire for the coat. I need that feather back, Kate.”
Again she nods. Then she says: “Robert?”
“What really happened to Niker in Chance House?”
“Nothing.” His being scared doesn't seem so important any more.
“OK,” she persists, “what happened to you then? What changed you?”
“It's like you found something there.”
“The feather. Three feathers actually.”
“Seriously, Kate. Three feathers and… some confidence maybe.” I look at her angel face. “Courage even. And do you know what? I sometimes think that's exactly what Mrs Sorrel sent me there to find. So you see, I reserve my right to remain a tiny bit bonkers after all.”
“I like you bonkers,” Kate says and smiles. And this time the dimple is especially and only for me. And I am at last my own dream, a boy standing on the edge of a lake throwing stones and watching as the water radiates dimples. “I’ll find that Chance House feather for you,” Kate continues, “and the white one.”
“They may just be on the Art Room floor,” I say. “Or chucked in the bin.”
“I’ll check. And I’ll ask Niker. And after school I’ll go to the beach and the graveyard. I’ll get those feathers. As many as you need.”
“Thank you. Thank you for ever.”
“I have to go now. But I’ll be back. You'll see.”
When she goes a light seems to go out of the house. I fret. I want
to visit Mrs Sorrel now, immediately. But I have to be careful and I
have to be wise. The most important thing is to finish the coat and
now, with Kate's help, I can do that without leaving the house. If
I'm caught away from home now, then Mum's tenuous trust in me will
be broken. And my only hope of getting to the Sharing is if Mum
still has confidence in me, believes that I’ll stay put. Otherwise
she'll stay put. Sit in the house with me.
I get the number from the phonebook. I call and the phone is picked up straight away. It's Matron. I'd recognise her voice anywhere. Heart pounding I slam the phone down. I should have thought of that. I should have had a plan. So I do some thinking, try my luck again. This time it isn't Matron.
“Good morning,” I say. “Is it possible to speak to Edith Sorrel.”
There's a pause.
“Her nephew. Ian.”
“Ian?” the voice queries.
“Ian Wright,” I say quickly. Ian Wright! The retired footballer ex of Arsenal and West Ham? Where did he come from? I hold my breath but the care assistant seems oblivious.
“Could you hang on a minute,” she says, “I’ll get Matron for you.”
Pound, pound, pound. That's the bean again. Should I put the phone down? Ian Wright wouldn't do that. A courageous boy wouldn't do that. I hang on, as instructed.
“Mr Wright?” Matron's voice.
“Yes,” I say gruffly.
“I take it you are aware of Mrs Sorrel's condition?”
“Yes,” same gruff stuff. “I thought, as, urn, I'm unable to visit right now, I might be able to speak to her by phone?”
“I'm afraid that won't be possible. The news is not good, Mr Wright.”
My heart skips a beat.
“Yesterday lunchtime, your aunt slipped… into a coma. Of course, things could change, but at the moment I have to tell you her doctor believes the prognosis is not good.” There is a pause which I am unable to fill. “Would you care to leave a message for Mr Sorrel?”
“No. Yes. Tell him… tell him… the boy who can fly keeps his promises.”
“I beg your pardon?” says Matron.