She was loaded down with bags, with Pete, and one of the broadest grins they had seen on her for years. It was only when she saw the bruise that had begun to appear on Chris’s cheek, one lucky punch, that she lost her newly found demeanour.
“What happened?” she enquired with a concern that took her back to the bad days.
She hoped, prayed, that it had not followed them here. The bullying had been one of the worst things that had come from it. She had accepted her part, had accepted the isolation, the ostracism that had come with the label of having a child-killing drink-drive husband, but she could not accept the malevolence that had been visited upon her sons by their peers. This had scarred the family in a fashion that ran much deeper than the cut of a blade.
Chris was going to use the old football injury story that had served him so well after previous skirmishes, but a look from his brother suggested otherwise. Sometimes the ‘thinking things through’ routines were a few steps beyond him, yet, now, thinking it through, he realised that telling the truth, some of the truth, would be the best option.
“It’s okay, just football. I caught somebody’s elbow in my eye when we were both challenging for the ball.”
“It looks bad. Come here and let me look at it.”
“Mum, I’m not a baby. It’s all right. I’m fine.”
She knew that this was Chris the fighter, the tough boy, the one who couldn’t show any hurt. He had always been this way even before the accident and that was something she admired about him: his strength and his uncomplicated manner. Michael, on the other hand, was the opposite. It wasn’t that he was riven with emotional outpourings, but he was quintessentially different. He was a thinker, a veritable casserole of considerations and she loved him dearly for this even though there had been times when she knew she had to be cautious when treading in his territory.
“You scored though didn’t you?” Michael interceded.
Michael was lying and this time Pete knew it, but his mother didn’t.
Pete also knew that they had been excluded from school. This came from Chris’s thoughts, and from the same source he knew that there was more to it than either of them dared to admit to themselves. His older brothers did not realise that Pete also understood their plans concerning how they would get around the three-day exclusions. Chris told him all of this without even thinking about it too much.
“Yes. Can I help you with those Mum?”
And Chris was off carrying the shopping bags into the kitchen trying not to do anything that would arouse suspicion, and doing just that.
“How was school today?”
“Great,” Michael rushed in immediately followed by Chris who was now returning back from the kitchen.
“Great? I didn’t expect you to be saying that. I thought you hated the place.”
“Hate’s too strong a word Mum. Suppose great is too,” this was Michael. “Great for Sha… St Agnes is fine, okay, boring but bearable. Isn’t that so Chris?”
“Anyway, tell us about your day. What was wrong with Brian?”
Pete listened to his mother tell the story of the day. When she spoke, he was there with her not just hearing her words, but inside them the way he could get inside other people’s thoughts. He saw the women who she worked with, noting the smile that the older one wore (which was not really a smile). He saw the painted smiles of clowns and they scared him. Something there he did not like and he wanted to say, ‘be careful of the lady, Mum’. If only he could have done that without his mum finding out that he had this strangeness within him.
Pete was still the baby yet he knew so much. He knew that there was something wrong with one of the ladies at his nursery who smiled like the woman at mum’s work. He would have to watch her. He knew that there was something wrong about the man who had brought Brian back to life again. The man was good, but he was somehow wrong because of the other thing that was inside of him. Pete had tried to get inside to have a look, had attempted to sneak in, but it hadn’t worked. When Pete thought about the man now, all he could see was a face that seemed to have been rubbed out, erased and started again like a child’s sketch. But the man was GOOD.
His mother believed the man to be good as well. Apart from the huge favour he had done her, which she was incredibly grateful for, there was something in the way he spoke to her that put the bad thoughts to one side. The bad thoughts, although she dared not admit it, were coming back like weeds invading a garden. She had had bad thoughts about Anne and the more that she thought about it, the more bad thoughts crept in.
It may have been her overactive imagination, but she thought she had caught her watching her, studying her actions and behaviour. Then there had been that time when she had gone into work early and had discovered Anne seated at her computer going through the folders she had put together. Laura had hidden herself then and had crept off to the coffee-dispensing machine before going back to the office, announcing herself with heavy footsteps and a tune. Anne had been back in her own seat working away as if she had been rooted there all along. She knew that something was wrong though, but could it have only been her old self knocking at the door again. She had been without the tablets for such a long time and had thought she was rid of them, thought that their powers of falsehood had been vanquished by the clear air of this new reality.
However small, the little things were mounting up and making her question the way the world was being rolled out. She thought about the boys, the eldest who had not questioned the move downward, had never dragged up any conversation that would make her explain why they had done such a thing and had never talked about their father; not once.
She had left the tablets behind and had walked into the shallows of the real world, scraping herself on its abrasive kiss. She would see this through to the end…and make it right.
She needed to sacrifice herself to build a future for the boys.