“Sick?” inquires my mother.
As it is the end of the day, Miss Raynham has dispensed with the idea of the school nurse and phoned the hospital. She has extracted my mother from the ward of seriously sick patients she's paid to care for and put me on the end of the line to explain myself.
“I'm fine,” I sat. “It's nothing.”
“I’ll come if you need me,” says Mum.
“It's OK. I said I'm fine.”
“Love you,” Mum says.
“Yes,” I reply and put the phone down.
“She can't come.” Miss Raynham raises an eyebrow. “There's been an emergency.”
“I see,” says Miss Raynham. She pats her bosom. The fluffy grey sweater on which the sausage casserole landed has been tied into a plastic bag. The seepage on the red blouse beneath has been wiped with water and tissues. There are flecks of white on the damp stain. Miss Rayaham rolls one under a nail. “Well, I suppose that's that.”
“Yes,” I say and try a smile.
She opens her mouth, she's about to begin again and then the bell goes. There's an immediate and deafening end-of-day clamour. Feet skid, book bags flump, kids roar and holler.
Miss Raynham opens the staff-room door. “A little less noise,
there,” she says.
I start off down the corridor towards the cloakroom. She follows me.
“A little less noise, there, I said,” she bawls.
There's a disgruntled, scuffling silence.
“I think I ought to accompany you home.” Miss Raynham announces suddenly, in front of everyone.
“No!” I cry. “Thank you. I'm fine now. I really am.”
Now there's a real silence.
“I’ll go with him,” says a voice. “I live that way”
It's Kate and she doesn't. In fact, although we both live within five minutes walk of the school, her route home lies in precisely the opposite direction from mine.
A dark head appears above the pegs to my right. “You heard him,” says Niker. “He doesn’t need the company. He's fine. Really fine.”
“A kind offer, nevertheless,” says Miss Raynham, briskly. “What do you say, Robert?”
“Erm...” I could be feeling sick again. “Erm...”
“That's settled then. Thank you very much, Kate. Take a Good Conduct Plus.”
“Thank you, Miss Raynham.”
Miss Raynham leaves.
“What's happened to your own Mum, Norbie?” asks Niker. “She abandoned you as well, has she?”
“Shut up, Niker.”
“First your dad walks out. And now your mum's...”
“I said SHUT UP, Niker.”
Niker smiles, pulls an empty crisp bag from his pocket and hands it to Kate.
“What's that for?” she asks.
“Sick bag,” he says.
“I told you,” I say, “I'm not going to be sick again.”
“Yeah,” says Niker. “But Kate might be. After walking home with you.”
Kate balls the crisp packet. “Come on,” she says to me. “Lets go.”
We go. I turn right out of the school gate.
Kate pauses. “Isn't it quicker that way?” she asks. “Through The Dog Leg?”
“Uh - yes,” I say. “But I want to show you something. Do you mind?”
“What?” she asks.
“Just something,” I say. “Something I... found.”
She looks at her watch.
“Are you in a hurry?”
“No,” she says. “S'pose not.”
“Thanks,” I say
“No I mean it. Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
And then she smiles and that dimple comes. Just for me. And of course I had no intention of showing bet David Sorrel's grave, no intention of going back to look at it myself. But that smile almost makes it seem like a good idea. A great idea.
The graveyard is barely twenty-five metres from the school gate, just along past the fenced playing held, and then first right. Not much time to wind yourself into a frenzy but this is what happens: I wind myself into a frenzy. It's all going too well, isn't it? So suddenly I think there will be no white marble chippings, no fresh daffodils. No headstone of David Sorrel, aged 12. It will all have been my own sick (and I have been sick) imagination. And I’ll be left wandering round the graveyard showing Kate the pigeons.
“Yes?” says Kate.
I scan the graves, take a breath, point.
“A pigeon?” says Kate.
There are about a hundred pigeons perched on gravestones. I lower my finger. Beneath a particularly fat white bird is the headstone of our beloved son, David Sorrel, aged 12.
Kate follows the line of my finger. “Oh,” she says. And then again, as she gets closer, “Oh, oh Robert.” She squats by the grave, but quietly. The pigeon remains where he is, looking at her. She stretches out a hand, can't stop herself touching the sharply indented number 12. Then her hand falls. “They're fresh,” she says of the daffodils. “Somebody's put fresh flowers here.”
“Ernest Sorrel,” I say.
She turns a quizzical face upwards.
“Mrs Sorrel's husband. It can't be Edith herself. She's too ill to leave the Home.”
“Are you sure this really is - was - their child?”
I want to shrug, I want not to know. But I say: “Yes. Sure.”
Kate stands up. “He'd have been old now. Over forty.”
“And have children of his own maybe. Grandchildren for Mrs Sorrel.”
Standing, Kate and I are about the same height. Her eyes level with mine. “Did Mrs Sorrel really ask you to go to Chance House”
“And I went.”
“O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!” An apparition erupts from behind the tomb of Claude Mosen, aged 86. It grins insanely. It waves its arms. Pigeons scatter. “I am the ghost of Claudie Mosen! Come from the foul and fetid beyond to warn of the fell fibs of Norbert No-Brain, otherwise known as Norbert No-Botlle, No-Chance, No—“
“Don't you ever give up?” says Kate.
Niker vaults over the tomb and lands like a cat at her feet.
“Never,” he says, straightening up and grinning. “First rule of chivalry - a man of honour is duty - bound to challenge a lie. To listen to a lie and remain silent is, my lady, tantamount to—“
“Yes, yes,” says Kate. “Whatever.”
“OK,” says Niker. “Have it your way. Norbert No-Bottle could no more find the courage to go to the top of Chance House than he could be relied on to jump out of the window when he got there.” He laughs. “More’s the pity.” Then he turns to me. “Am I right or am I right?”
“You're wrong,” I say. And even though it's the truth it frightens
me to say it. I have never challenged Niker so directly before. And
certainly not in front of someone else.
“The window of the top room's broken,” I say quickly. “In the shape of a star.”
“The room that looks over the back garden, you mean?”
“Brilliant.” Niker relaxes. “Take top grades in sleuthing, Norbie.”
“Well, your honour,” says Niker. “The defendant. Mr N for Norbert No-Brain, asserts he's been to the top of Chance House. The rather more intelligent prosecuting counsel - Mr J for Jugular Niker - submits that Norbert's been into the garden, looked up at the Top Floor Flat, noticed - from the outside - the broken window - and bingo! Two plus two equals three.”
“There's wallpaper,” I say.
“Really,” says Niker. “And a floor, no doubt.”
“It's got ducks on.”
“Would that be the wallpaper or the floor, Norbie?”
“The wallpaper! A mother duck and her three ducklings.”
“Not flying pigs then?”
I turn to Kate. “You believe me, don't you?”
Kate's head swings slowly between me and Niker.
“A contest,” says Niker, delighted. “The goddess chooses. A flower
for the hero who's telling the truth.” He whips a daffodil from the
vase on David Sorrel's grave.
“I just have,” says Niker.
“It's sacrilege,” says Kate.
“It's a daffodil,” says Niker.
Kate snatches the flower from him and jams it back into the pot,
breaking its stem.
“This is stupid.”
“Choose. You have to choose!”
“Right,” says Kate, furiously. “Here's the plan. You go to that room, Johnny, and you check it out. Go right to the top and then you’ll see for yourself if there are or aren't any ducks, won't you!”
“Ha,” says Niker. “Queen Solomon herself.” He gives me a sidelong glance. “I think I’ll go. In fact I think I’ll take a sleeping bag and spend the night there. All in the dark, Norbie. Wboo... Whoo...” He makes ghost noises. “Only,” he contrives to look confused, “only how will you know I've really done it? How could I proo-ove it to you. Norbie? Mm. Tricky.” He sucks the tips of his fingers. “I know.” He grabs me round the neck. “You'll have to come too. You and me alone in the Top Floor Flat, Chance House. How about it, Norbie?”
“You can't be scared, Norbie. Because you've already been there, haven't you? So you know there's nothing in that room,” his voice drops to a whisper, “but....DUCKS!”
Now this is what's happening. I am shaking from head to foot. Not because Niker's got his hands round my throat and is screaming “DUCKS” in my ear but because if there's one thing in the world I don't want to do, it's spend a night alone in the Top Floor Flat, Chance House. I cannot imagine anything more horrible. Except – perhaps - spending the night in the Top Floor Flat, Chance House with Jonathan Niker.
“No...” I say. “No, Niker. Please... I couldn't.”
“Why's that, Norbie? Is it because there are no DUCKS in that room after all?” He winks at Kate.
“There are ducks.” It's quite difficult to speak when someone has their hands round your throat, so I'm sort of gasping really. “And people.”
“A brick,” I gasp. “It moves.”
“A moving brick, Norbie? Sort of jumps out of its wall and moves around among the ducks, does it?”
“Oh, on the floor. A brick on the floor. Right.”
“Yeah, you said that. And do you know who one of them is, moving between the bricks and ducks, Norbie? I think it might be that boy who died, don't you? The strawberry jam one? Wandering about with his little ghostie feet slep-slepping on the jam. Whad’ya think, Norbert?”
I can't speak now. Either because I just can't or because Niker has finally succeeded in squeezing all the air from my throat.
“I think you should go, Robert,” says Kate. She smiles. The dimple is blurred.
Niker lets me go and my head nods as it hits the ground.
“Tomorrow night then,” says Niker. “Sleeping bags at dusk. Can't wait.” He picks up his school bag from behind Claude Mosen's tomb and slouches off. But he's only gone a few feet when he wheels around: “If you don't show, Norbert, I'll kill you.”
I'm still on my knees, trying to get some air back into my lungs.
“And if you don't show,” Kate says to Niker, “then no doubt he'll kill you.”
Niker whistles. “Scary!” Then he's gone.
I still haven't moved.
Kate looks down at me. “You don't have to be so pathetic,” she says.
“Oh never mind.” She extends a hand and pulls me roughly to my feet. And then she says: “He's only talk, Niker.”
“Did you ever hear about the Grape Incident?” I ask.
“That wasn't just talk,” I say
“I... I’ll... I’ll tell you another time.”
We walk the rest of the way home in silence. A silence that makes me feel both stupid and miserable. When we get to my back gate, I want to invite her in. But of course I don't and even if I did. I know she wouldn't accept.
“Bye, I say”
“Bye, Robert,” she says. I watch her going. She sets off through The Dog Leg without a backwards glance. I unchain, unbolt and unlock my way into the house.
“I can see you,” I yell into the sitting room. Then I just give up. If there was anyone in the house waiting to hit me over the head with a vase, then, the way things are, they'd be doing me a favour. I sit down on the floor. My only hope is, I suppose, that Mum will see through it. That she won't let me go. That she'll phone up Mrs Niker and tell her that it's all completely ridiculous. It'll mean I’ll get called chicken and be beaten up at school on Monday, which won't be great, but, on balance, it will be better than being pushed out of a fourth-floor window.
I don't know how long I sit on the floor but I'm still there when Mom comes home.
“Robert? Robert? Mum switches on the light. “Hey - what you doing in the dark?”
“Thinking. Just thinking.”
“Sure? Not sick any more?”
“Not sick any more.”
“Is it to do with your dad? Because he’s not coming when he promised?”
“We'll do something nice. We'll do something nice anyway tomorrow night. What would you like to do, Robert? Just say.”
“Niker's invited me over.”
“Wants me to bring a sleeping bag. Sleepover. You know.”
“And do you want to go?”
“Yes. Course. Why wouldn't I?”
“All right. Fine.” She kneels down, put her arms around me. “I'm really pleased.” she chucks me under the chin. “It'll be great. Yes? Looking forward to it?”
“Can't wait,” I say.