The Common

All Rights Reserved ©

Sapling

Sapling

A sapling is a tree in its juvenile state.

A juvenile tree is perfect for transplanting into your yard. However, it is not mature enough to reproduce. It’s growing rapidly and has lots of energy to give it the best chance at life. It needs care to keep it on the right track and ensure it stays a part of your landscape for years to come.

© 2019 MR. TREE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Emma

Emma dreaded going into her children’s school on official business, it could have been a throwback to her own education. She had never been an exemplary student, she had languished in the background, going to great lengths not to make an impact of any kind, positive or negative. Then in her career she had spent too many hours listening to the concerns of parents who had children who just didn’t or couldn’t fit the ever-inflexible mould. Stuck in the middle of tribunals where local authority employees would toe a line they didn’t truly believe in, and having to inform on ‘best fit’ judgements and just ‘enough’ support in a child’s education, which could impact on the rest of their lives.

Emma couldn’t decide on what to wear. She didn’t want to look like she was a complete walk over, sweatshirt, jeans and trainers, nor did she want to look as if she’d power dressed for the occasion. The school probably had no idea of her background, the teachers only ever saw her as a mother, and one that probably didn’t work, or if she did it must have been menial because she didn’t wear a lanyard.

The lanyard! She would wear it today under her coat as a talisman. Who was ‘Frank Hirth’ anyway? Emma couldn’t work out whether the lanyard belonged to Frank Hirth, which would bring up the question of how it got to be in the possession of Jim’s daughter, or whether it was a company name, it had no other details just ‘visitor’ printed on it. She put it over her head, after deciding to wear a pair of plain black trousers and a grey woollen V-neck with a simple, but colourful design across the chest and her favourite boots, they gave her height but she could walk in them confidently. Checking herself in the mirror she was pleased with her selection, it made her look like she could be a white-collar worker but not too official, like something not too distinguishable in the council.

The lanyard reminded her of Jim, and the day he gave her it as a present. She had never noticed the shape of his jaw or the texture of his skin until then. Emma hadn’t realised how worried she was about Clara until that day. It wasn’t just Clara, either, it seemed to be a bit of everything. Chris never being around, her job just being about lives coming to a close, her mother projecting her regrets onto Emma. Emma had asked him something or other and he had looked up into the trees, and when he turned to her, she remembered being shocked by the colour of his eyes, they were blue and clear and earnest. Emma was struck by how kind his face looked.

In the car on the way she replayed the phone call from the school receptionist in her head. Miss Webster had said the Head Mistress would like to see her and had added, “don’t worry it’s nothing to worry about…well… Clara’s not been sick or anything”. On arriving she was buzzed in and found herself uncomfortably standing in front of a Perspex shielded desk window. The window was shut and presumably the person who buzzed her in was the same person who was now pretending she couldn’t see her. Emma hesitated, was she to sit down on the blue institutionally ‘comfy’ chairs in the corner, the ones covered in a course, scratchy material, one step up from the plastic covered ones she was used to at her work, or stand at the window and seem impatient and menacing. Emma decided to style it out and looked at a display of current staff, their photos, their names, and titles.

The sudden sound of the Perspex window being dragged open aggressively made her jump, which made her laugh as she turned to see an unamused staff member. Emma wondered if Miss Webster was the person best placed to be the welcoming face of the school. Emma had noticed the school had ‘Welcome’ in many languages woven into a rug below her feet, but the facial expression she was now faced with was anything but welcoming.

“Yes?” Miss Webster spat curtly. It seemed an imposition to be dragged from her paperwork to address a person who she herself had invited into the school.

“I have an appointment with Mrs Storey.” But you would know this as you are the one who phoned me about it, she felt like adding.

“Take a seat” Miss webster said as she closed the Perspex window again and continued with her seemingly life or death check of the afternoon register. Emma noticed she didn’t call Mrs Storey or make any attempt to contact the Headmistress to tell her Emma had arrived. Which was frustrating as it was now ten past one, when the appointment was scheduled for 1.00pm. Eventually Miss Webster picked up the phone and Emma could hear her tell someone that Mrs Stock had arrived and was waiting. There followed a muffled laugh and Miss Webster looked Emma up and down and appeared to agree to something, said by the someone, on the other end of the line. Emma’s confident persona was ebbing away.

“Mrs Storey is just finishing with lunch, she won’t be long”, Miss Webster had opened the screen an inch or so. Emma smiled and acknowledged the information but waited another four and a half minutes before she was instructed to buzz and then push the door.

Emma realised if this was an intelligence test she would have failed. Looking around the door she couldn’t see a button or a buzzer or any item she could conceivably press to be allowed entry.

“On the wall, on the wall” Miss Webster shouted through the Perspex. Emma looked at every wall but still couldn’t see it. “On the wall by the noticeboard, no up a bit”, Miss Webster added.

Emma felt exhausted, by the time she sat facing Mrs Storey in her office, all her resolve had gone. She felt twelve years old again, and about to get a lecture on the subject of not using the library table as a makeshift slab on which to attempt to pierce another pupil’s ear. It wasn’t her idea.

Mrs Storey took a breath.

“I expect you know why I have called you in,” she said. Emma wasn’t sure if this needed an answer but to be honest, she didn’t exactly know, she decided to nod a response. “Clara”, Mrs Storey added, another nod, “she has been getting into some… ‘confrontations’ shall we say…Just little things but increasing in amount. It’s almost every day she has upset someone or other. We thought it was just her developing personality at first, some children are naturally…’bossy’, but it’s starting to have an impact on her social skills and relationships with students and teachers alike.” Emma looked puzzled, she genuinely didn’t understand what this was all about, and that monologue hadn’t made things any clearer.

“Oh, I am sorry to hear that. She doesn’t seem that happy at home either.” Emma said not knowing if it would help.

“Well, the reason I bought you in, is to ask you, and I have to ask this…” Emma wondered what might be coming next, “Is there anything going on at home?” This question totally threw Emma. She paused for a bit, just to give herself thinking time but she wasn’t thinking about what might be going on at home, but rather why she had been asked such a question.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“It’s just that sometimes a child’s behaviour is impacted by changes or dynamics at home, have you any problems there?” Emma was starting to get hot and angry on the inside, why do schools immediately assume that when a child isn’t like everyone else there must be something at home upsetting them? Do they ever take a long hard look at themselves? She wanted to take off her coat but suddenly remembered the fake lanyard and felt stupid and foolish. Mrs Storey had paused, Emma waited for more, but since she didn’t say anything else, realised it was her turn. Emma repeated the question in her head, ‘problems at home?’

“My husband works a lot, but I think Clara prefers it that way. He and Clara can clash.”

“I see.” Mrs Storey had a satisfied look on her face, an ’I knew it’, look. “How does she and Bertie get along?”

“Well, just the normal sibling stuff, I suppose.” If the normal sibling stuff meant torturing her brother and obsessively beating him at everything, from running up the stairs to finishing dinner, she thought. In fact, Clara never let Bertie win at anything. If it looked likely that he might, she would instantly change the rules and Bertie would loyally accept that his big sister was just better at everything than him. Emma wondered how long that relationship dynamic would work, she had just accepted the same from her sister and still did. Would Bertie ever fight back?

“Mrs Stock”, the headmistress bought her back to the room. “How is Clara at home? Does she display any unusual or challenging ‘traits’?” Emma sensed where this was going.

“I am not sure what you are saying, but I think you might be implying she has some kind of condition or other?”

“Well, it’s not as unusual as you think, and somethings are particularly difficult to spot in girls.”

“Mrs Storey, I’m not sure if you know of my employment history”, Emma had had enough of the patronising tone of the Head Mistress, “but I have worked in education law and have some experience of the ‘challenging traits’ you might be suggesting. I have a very good idea of what constitutes as autism, ADHD, ODD, PDA and I can assure you my daughter doesn’t display any of them!”

“I’m not saying that Mrs Stock, but I will say this, Clara doesn’t have any friends, she can be disruptive in class and struggles to follow school rules and protocol.” There was a moment where both women processed what had just been said. “I will leave it with you, it’s open evening later this week if you would like to discuss things further, I will book you in a slot. Just let Miss Webster know.”

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur, she had gone to the shops to grab some bits as it was too early to pick up the children, and there wasn’t enough time to go home and get anything productive done. She wasn’t really concentrating though, going over the conversation in her head, ‘no friends, disruptive in class and struggles with rules and protocol’. What happened to the ‘bad news sandwich’, one piece of bad news surrounded on either side by good?

Emma saw Leah at pick up, she had smiled at Emma and tried to strike up a conversation. Leah had asked Emma if she had started a new job, as she had noticed the unfamiliar lanyard around her neck. Emma passed it off as a ‘long story’ and briefly added she’d had a bad day, by way of excuse for not engaging much. Another mother approached Leah, and Emma used the distraction to drift away.

Emma looked at Clara closely as she came out of her classroom, looking for clues. She noticed that most of the girls came out in pairs or small groups of three or four, laughing and gossiping as they went. Clara was among the last to come out. She looked exhausted, some boys pushed past her, knocking her glasses. They said something to Clara as they passed but one of them, who saw Emma, nudged the others until they were quiet. Emma felt an overwhelming sadness she had never felt before. How could she have missed this?

She was glad her mother was coming tonight and Chris had promised to get home early enough for them to have one of their ‘date nights’, if he did actually make it, it will have been the first they’d had this year.

“Well, I don’t know what she’s talking about. There’s nothing wrong with Clara. She’s just too good for all of them. Mrs ‘Snob’ Storey is probably not used to having such a well-developed, intelligent pupil in her whole school.” Was what her mother had said when Emma had told her. Emma appreciated her mother’s loyalty but was beginning to compile evidence in her head that supported what the Head Mistress had been saying. It didn’t start off as that. It started off as a list of how it couldn’t possibly be true, but the more she thought about it, the more she could associate Clara’s idiosyncratic behaviours to all sorts of conditions.

In Reception, Clara never knew anyone’s name in her class. Children would always be calling out “Hi Clara” and Emma would ask who they were and Clara would say, “I don’t know,” and Emma would accept it as Clara not wanting to tell her, but now she realised, perhaps she really didn’t know. Thinking about it, apart from the first year of school when everyone got invited to parties, the invitations had dried up recently, Emma couldn’t remember the last time Clara had been invited to a party, but not since she had been in Year 4 and she couldn’t remember any in Year 3 either. She had played with toys or rather she had requested toys for birthdays and Christmases but on reflection most of her games were about collecting and sorting. Emma had always been proud of how Clara could entertain herself, and Emma couldn’t remember a time Clara didn’t read, she could read and read. She loved books and knowledge, she loved to learn. Emma had always thought Clara would be alright. She didn’t seem to struggle academically, Emma thought school would be a doddle for her, it turns out she was wrong.

In the event Chris did get home in time, but Emma wasn’t in the mood for a romantic ‘date’. She had been mulling over the conversation with Mrs Storey, along with snippets of memories in Clara’s development, so much so that afternoon, she thought she and Chris needed a proper discussion on what to do next. They ended up in their local, a small pub that did a bit of food, five minutes down the road. They could have walked but it was a cold evening and Emma was happy with the decision to take the car.

“I went into the children’s school today, to meet Mrs Storey.” Chris looked blank, “you know, the phone call, the Head wanting to see me?”

“Right. What did they want?”

“Well, they are worried about Clara.”

“Worried? Why? She does so well.”

“Well, yes academically, but this was about behaviour. Mrs Storey said, ‘she hasn’t any friends, she is disruptive in class and struggles with school rules and protocol’.” Emma quoted. She wasn’t sure what response she was expecting but when Chris responded it was sharp and abrupt.

“All you give me is problems, it’s like this at work, everyone comes to me with problems, can’t you just work it out, think in solutions for a change.” Emma was taken a back. She felt hurt, this wasn’t a ‘problem’ that she expected Chris to be able to solve, it was a sharing of information. A simple show of support or unity would have helped. Emma felt a sob in her throat but swallowed it down. Her silence seemed to incense Chris more. “What are you saying? That Clara has issues? She’s not one of your cases, you know. What are you saying? She has autism or ADHD?”

“No, I didn’t say that, Mrs Storey didn’t say that, but think about it, Chris, she has not always been the easiest child, she has her…quirks.”

“Yes, and that is all they are, ‘quirks’. I see what’s happening here, you’ve finally got it haven’t you.”

“Got what?”

“Your very own ‘special needs’ child. I thought this might happen. You just want something to fight for, you’ve always been like that. You have to have a cause. Well congratulations now you have it…let the circus begin.” He drained his drink and got up and headed outside, taking his phone out of his pocket as he left. Emma watched him for a while through the glass door of the pub, he was speaking to someone. She felt tired, as if suddenly it was all her fault. If Clara did need help, she felt she couldn’t do it alone, she knew she couldn’t. She really wanted, needed, Chris to be on board. Emma put her coat on, she didn’t check to see if Chris had seen her, but she went out the side entrance straight onto the carpark and started to walk home.

It was quiet on the street, few cars passed her. The evening was cold but not unpleasant. It was dark and wintery but there wasn’t a wind and it wasn’t raining. Emma felt somehow liberated, she was walking home, alone, at night. Something she hadn’t done since her student days, it felt exhilarating and slightly dangerous. The next car that came along could stop, someone could bundle her in, but she wasn’t afraid. When it came to turn into her road she hesitated, what if she didn’t go back? What if she disappeared?

Emma thought about Chris and his hostility and the way he always made her feel worthless recently, devoid of opinion or right to have one, and she looked down the road to see if a car was coming. There was one and she was about to wave it down, jump in its path, change this course she was on, but thought better of it. The air that blew in her face as the car passed woke her up and she turned into her road and made her way to her house. The children’s bedrooms were dark but there was a light on downstairs, and she could see through a gap in the curtain her mother watching something on television. She opened the front door and taking a deep breath went in.

“You’re back early.”

“Yes, I didn’t feel very well. I came home.”

“Where’s Chris?”

“He stayed…for a bit. I think I will go to bed.”

“Well, yes, you look tired. I think you are taking too much on”.

“It’s just this stuff with Clara, it’s on my mind.”

“These Teacher’s, putting ideas in your head, worries. They don’t realise that you are doing your best as it is. Now they bring up something, that didn’t need to be said.”

“I’ll just put Paddy out, then I’ll go up.”

“You could do without that dog, he’s something extra, you really don’t need. I caught him with his paws up at the counter when I came down from putting the children to bed. He was licking the work surface! Don’t worry I’ve bleached it all down.”

“Thank you.” Emma said as she went into the kitchen to see Paddy looking sorry for himself lying in his bed. Emma winked at him conspiratorially and thought to herself ‘if only she knew’.

Chris came home late, probably trying to avoid Fiona, his mother-in-law. Emma had heard the car draw up at the house. Chris climbed into bed, he breathed alcohol in her face, and she rolled over pretending to be deep in sleep. He put his arm round her and started tracing the contours of her body with his hand. ‘Seriously’, she thought. That was the irony of the ‘date night’ label, if this really was a date, Chris would have had to be a lot nicer and considerate if he was hoping for sex. If he behaved that way to her on an original date, there wouldn’t have been a second one and she would never had married him at all. At this particular moment, it escaped her why she had done.

Jim

Today was the day to visit Peter. Jim knew the name of the care home and the street. He had passed it several times but had never before had cause to go in. Even when Ruth was at her worst, she was either in hospital or at home, Jim had never had to leave her in a place like that.

The street was residential at one time or another, where the houses were what you might call town mansions. Jim wondered if any one of them had a family left in it. Most had been bought up, and whereas some had been divided into trendy flats, or dentist’s surgeries. This one had had handrails installed on all the walls and strip lighting in the hallways. There were day rooms, where all the chairs faced glass windows into the garden, and a common room where the chairs faced the television in a constructed semicircle.

All Jim could think was, ‘poor old Pete,’ as he was shown the way to Room 35. Peter was lucky, he was in the short stay suite, on the second floor. The ground floor had a different feel to it and Jim couldn’t quite put his finger on why. On his way in, there had been a grey oblique ‘private ambulance’ parked by a side door with a young man smoking a cigarette whilst leaning up against it. He wasn’t in a hurry, he didn’t look like he was about to save a life, more resigned to the fact that he had missed the chance. To Jim the whole of the ground floor felt that way, the urgency was absent, these people were in situations that weren’t going to get better.

Jim shuddered as he climbed the stairs following the backside of a larger lady who had nylon tights that he could hear rubbing together as she moved around.

“Are you a relative of Peter, or just a friend?” she asked in a suspicious way as if she were the proprietor of a boarding house and was making sure one of her tenants weren’t breaking their tenancy agreements.

“A friend.”

“Oh. Peter has been lucky. We’ve had his two sons in and his grand kiddies at the weekend and now a friend. Not like some of them.” Jim didn’t know how to respond to this but murmured, what he thought sounded like concerned agreement. They reached the door of Room 35.

Jim was surprised at how spritely Peter looked. He was dressed, he was groomed, out of bed and he got up as Jim walked in.

“Thank you, Miss Sharlene.” He said, “you must be busy today, I haven’t seen your glorious smile yet this morning.” Jim couldn’t decide whether Peter sounded charming or sarcastic, but the nurse seemed happy with the remark and winked at him as she went out giving a velvety Jamaican chuckle. Jim felt a little uncomfortable then. They were alone in a room with a bed in, and it occurred to Jim that although he had known Peter for years, he now was effectively in his bedroom. Jim sat on the only other chair in the room.

“You’ve got to keep them sweet; I mean it must be a bloody awful job, the least you can be is polite. Besides, I think it helps if you want your food warm and your tea hot.”

“Well, how are you?” Jim asked ineffectually. He realised he hadn’t brought Peter anything and perhaps he should, it would’ve been a talking point if nothing else. Ruth would have bought something, or at least prompted Jim to do so. He noticed cards and flowers and sweet treats dotted about the room. “I just popped in, as I was passing, just on the off-chance you might still be here…and by that I mean that you might have been let home and not that you were…”

“Dead?!” Peter smiled.

“You know what I meant” Jim stuttered.

“Of course, I am just joking. It’s really nice to see anyone, and by that, I mean you aren’t just anyone. But I’ve had more visitors in the last three weeks than I have had at home in the last three years!”

“I suppose it takes something like this for people to realise you aren’t going to be around forever, but you are still here now.” Jim tried to sound reassuring.

“Well, I expect it’ll all peter-out, that doesn’t sound right, I was going to say ‘die down’ but that didn’t seem right either, not in this place. Apparently, you’re better off on the second floor, the ones downstairs are not expected to make it out…alive.” Peter whispered the last part of the sentence, as if someone from downstairs might hear him.

“When I think about ending my days in a place like this. That’s why I tried so hard to keep Ruth at home. There won’t be anyone to look after me. My Caroline might want me to move in with her, but I doubt it, I’m not stylish enough. I’d be too analogue amongst her digital lifestyle.”

“My boys have offered to have me while I fully recuperate, but no, it was only a stupid fall, on some stupid ice, wearing some bloody stupid shoes. I need to get back and get on. Besides, I’m afraid I’d get to like it. Living with a family again, people, meals included”

“Grandchildren.” Jim suggested, he only had the one, and for the last five years or so, that grandchild hadn’t seemed that pleased to see him, preferring to scroll on her phone than talk to him.

“I love them, and I like it when they visit but I like it more when they go.” The two men smiled at each other knowingly.

“Don’t suppose you’ll be doing table tennis for a while,” Jim stated, hoping that the answer he expected might be wrong.

“No, not yet, but I am up for a drink in the pub, if you like.”

Jim left Peter feeling a lot better than when he’d went in. Here was a person older than him who had had a spell in a hospital but had lived to tell the tale. It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Like some people would have you believe. ’It starts with a fall, then once you are in there you never get out, they go looking for things and find you’ve got more things wrong than you even knew possible, and even if you didn’t have anything else, you’ll catch something in there, then before long it’s game over’. Jim had arranged with Peter to meet in the pub in two weeks-time. That was something to look forward to.

As Jim descended the stairs, admittedly he was careful. He had turned down the use of the lift just to prove to everyone he was only a visitor here. As he reached the dreaded ground floor, he caught sight of a figure he recognised, not a resident but a worker. Jim saw her in the distance down a long corridor almost the length of the building. The woman was holding her bag under her chin as she fumbled to put on her coat. As she passed, people said, ‘see you tomorrow’s’ and she appeared to be in a hurry. Jim was sure it was Emma.

Emma had never really specified where she worked, but it all made sense now, the things she had mentioned here and there. Jim speeded up but wasn’t close enough to reach her before she went through the swinging double doors of the entrance, exit. He was close enough to hear her say she was sorry she was late, and when he reached the swinging doors, he saw her approaching a man waiting by a car. The man seemed frustrated and didn’t greet her with anything more than a ‘Hurry up, we are late’. The man wore jeans with a business shirt, open at the collar with no tie and brown pointy leather shoes. Jim had never liked that combination; he was frustrated with the man who couldn’t seem to decide between business and pleasure. Jim felt if you were going to wear a business shirt, you should smarten it up with similar trousers and a tie. What was it about jeans and dressy shoes? ‘Grow Up!’ he felt like shouting.

Jim sensed this wasn’t a good time to say hello to Emma, so he pretended to look at a carrousel of leaflets about being a carer and funeral plans and mobility scooters, while he watched. It was definitely Emma, as she swung round to open the door of the expensive looking silver Audi, and Jim could tell she was still apologising as she got in. The man started the engine before Emma had even shut the car door, and they pulled out the entrance gates and sped off up the street. Jim took a leaflet on ‘meals on wheels’ as cover and walked out the building, the weather had changed while he’d been inside, either that or the heat in that place had been set to tropical and now there was a biting February wind. He pulled his coat closer and walked out the carpark gateway, clearly labelled ‘Exit’.

True to his word Peter had met Jim in the pub two or so weeks later. It wasn’t awkward but they spent as much time drinking in silence, as they did talking. When you got to their age, going to the pub with someone was more about company than companionship. You met so you weren’t alone but you didn’t have to talk all the time. The two men knew they were thinking similar thoughts, they didn’t have to say anything.

Emma

“Have you had any notes in your reading record book?” Anita said before taking a big gulp of coffee.

“What kind of notes?” asked Leah.

’Ray would benefit from regular reading and completion of his homework’. Bollocks to that! I feel like writing back, ’well Ray would benefit from homework that he could actually read and understand’.”

“I know, what’s that all about? I thought the purpose of homework was to promote ‘independent learning’. Turns out, it’s more like my homework, than his”. Leah agreed.

“Tell me about it.” Emma felt able to chip in, “it’s not really fair, it’s not about the children not having time to do it, it’s about whether I have an hour of time to set aside to ‘facilitate’ it…after the crying has stopped.”

“All the posh mums seem to manage it, I wonder how, perhaps it’s because they have the money to pay someone else to do it.”

“I wish I had the money; I would gladly sell my Grandma not to have to ‘facilitate’ it. And I’ve only got the one child, how do you two do it, I have no idea.” Leah stirred her mug slowly.

“Luckily, the girls are beyond me now. I don’t know if they do it or not, but seeing as they don’t really talk to me, I will never know, and I’m happy to keep it that way.”

“Clara’s okay with it, but I am finding Bertie’s a challenge, not the actual level but just his reluctance. In between school, swimming and ‘cooking a wholesome meal’ complete with ‘rainbow coloured five-a-day’, it’s a struggle.”

“Yeah, it’s a shame we’re not allowed to feed them on Findus Crispy Pancakes anymore. They had something right in the seventies”. Laughed Anita.

“What was that all about the other day, the ‘long story’?” Leah changed the subject.

“What’s this, did I miss something?” Anita added, lowering her head across the table.

“Oh, nothing really. I had to go in to see Mrs Storey about Clara, she’s not doing very well at the moment.” Emma could feel herself welling up a bit. She hadn’t been able to talk to anyone about it, what with her mother’s loyalty and Chris’ indifference.

“No?” Leah asked innocently

“Apparently not, I can’t remember the exact words, but she hasn’t any friends, she disrupts lessons and struggles with rules and protocol.” Emma just about managed to swallow a sob.

“Oh” Anita began, “you haven’t had the ’is there anything going on at home?’ conversation. I hate it when they do that! Don’t worry Emma, they went on and on about my girls when me and Lukas split up, but it turned out they are both dyslexic. I am sure it must have impacted on them somehow, the divorce, but it did not manifest in poor spelling test results. Honestly, you would like to think a teacher would be able to identify the difference between some emotional disturbance and a learning need.”

“It’s probably easier for them if it’s down to you. If it’s to do with the child’s learning it means they have more work to do.” Leah added supportively. Emma felt herself well-up again. She chose not to say anymore, and the three women sat there for a while each of them thinking of what to say next to change the subject.

“What you need is a superhero undergarment!” Anita announced.

“A what now?” Leah asked.

“Well, I bought myself a Wonder Woman t-shirt, it’s bright red with a bright yellow double W across my chest. It doesn’t go with anything, but I put it on when I know I am going to have a day where I am going to need to be super effective. I have been known to get home from work and put it on, if I have to clean the bathroom or do something I really don’t want to do. I always wear it when I know I am going to see or speak to Lukas. It gives me strength.”

“What?” Leah and Emma said together.

“I mean, no one sees it. I wear something over it of course, especially If I am going to leave the house. No one wants to see a woman in their forties in Wonder Woman gear.”

“Not me anyway” Emma was thinking about the whole hot pants and bust outfit.

“I have heard it all now”. Leah laughed.

“Don’t knock it ’till you try it. There is one problem though, when the weather’s changeable in the spring, I wear it under something then it gets hot unexpectedly, and I would really like to take off my jumper, but there it is. I have been known to roast on those days.”

“Actually,” Emma confided, “I have a lanyard that doesn’t belong to me and I wore it when I went to see Mrs Storey.”

“I saw that. So that’s the ‘long story’.” Leah sounded like she understood but looked like she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

“Whose lanyard is it?” Asked Anita intrigued.

“Oh, Jim’s daughters. It hasn’t got her name on it or anything.”

“Okay, there are two things that worry me there. Isn’t Jim your dog walking ‘friend’? and why is he giving you his daughter’s lanyard?” Anita sat back triumphantly waiting for a response.

“It was a Christmas present,” Emma explained, realising how ludicrous the whole thing sounded, “and it’s a long story.”

“I only have lucky pants”. Interrupted Leah, “and they aren’t even consistently lucky, maybe I should get a new pair.” She said almost to herself.

Jim

After what seemed like weeks of damp, dull weather, there was a big freeze. Thursday came around and it was technically Emma’s turn to buy the coffee. Jim was glad, he didn’t fancy sliding his way down the High Street holding a dog lead and two coffee cups. The last place he wanted to end up was the ‘Friendship Care Home’. Even if it might mean seeing Emma more. It might be too cold to sit out today, he thought, but wrapped up extra warm just in case. He wore his old work long johns under his trousers and two pairs of thick socks under his boots, as well as the usual February garb of scarves, hat and gloves. Jim was actually feeling like he may have over done it, as he was becoming quite claustrophobic as he made it to the woods and headed a long his usual route.

Jim saw Emma a long way off. First, he recognised her red coat, bright in contrast to the bare black trees and hard dark frozen but churned up muddy paths. Then, as he approached, he could see she wasn’t marching around on a walk but standing stock still, staring at her feet. She moved microscopically forward then paused again before plunging down. She clasped her hands together at her chest in glee, before looking around to see if anyone was observing her. Meanwhile Paddy was circling her in excitement, finding the behaviour unsettling but picking up on the frivolity of it all. Emma turned in Jim’s direction, at first stopping to regain her composure, then on recognising him waving and beckoning him on.

“I love frozen puddles”, she said excitedly as he approached. “When I used to drag the children here on frosty mornings, I would always grumble at the people who came before and spoilt all the fun by breaking all the ice on all the puddles. I used to think, ’how did people get there before us and why did they crack them all?’, now I know. It’s people like me!” She walked to the bench handing him a coffee.

“I wondered what you were doing. I knew it must be something anarchic, the way you looked guiltily around.” Jim took a coffee and pulled his coat down to act as added padding on the seat.

“Well, if someone’s coming, I walk around the puddle and pretend I haven’t noticed it, in fact that happened at the top of the slope, by the rope swing. A woman came by talking on a mobile and we nodded at each other and both walked past the puddle. You should go back that way, seriously there is nothing more satisfying.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.”

“It’s so much fun. Some puddles take your weight for a few seconds, then you can watch the cracks appear and then whoosh, in you go. Others break instantly or your foot punches a hole in the ice, punch, punch, punch. You should try it. I sometimes lift the sheets of ice with my boot, lie it on the ground and stamp on it. But that would have to be a very quiet day.”

“Then you pick it up in your fingers and lick it and get wet woollen gloves and icy fingers all the way home.” A childhood memory came to Jim.

“Of course not, I’m not six Jim.” She laughed, then sighed. “It’s just an outlet from the monotony of adult life I suppose.” She added sadly.

“Oh dear, that doesn’t sound good.” Jim thought about changing the subject, mentioning the care home sighting but he didn’t know if work might be the source of her melancholy. Then Jim just came out and said it after a few seconds of silence. “I think I saw you the other day,” he started boldly. “At the Friendship Care Home. I was visiting one of my friends.”

“Oh, ground floor or upper?” Emma asked to gauge the seriousness of the visit.

“Upper.”

“That’s good. I mainly stay on the ground floor. But I hear upstairs is quite… jolly.”

“Well, in this case it was, he’s back at home now.”

“That’s good. Well you probably did see me as that’s where I spend the majority of the school day, for my sins.”

“I think you were just finishing; you were heading out the door, it must have been about 2 o’clock.”

“I usually stay a bit later than that. Oh, was it a Wednesday? That was the day my husband and I had an appointment at the school. Our oldest isn’t getting on that well.” Emma paused and looked as if she was wondering whether to stop there or to carry on. It was as if she knew if she started it would be difficult to stop. “I just hate the education system. It marginalises the children who just can’t do it the same way as everyone else. They aren’t stupid, they’re just different and in actual fact it’s those children who we will be begging for in the future, because of their different ways of looking at things will be what saves us in the end. Instead of penalising these children we should be celebrating them, encouraging difference, thinking what can we learn from them? If, not all children are accessing a narrow curriculum, shouldn’t we adapt and extend the system so that they can, rather than singling them out saying it’s their fault, and that they need to change.”

“I can’t remember school being that difficult in my day. You just went, stayed for as long as you had to, then left. No one seemed more different than anyone else, sure you got your bookworms and mathematicians but if you weren’t good at something, you’d be good at something else. I never really thought about it much.”

“Well now they have ‘inclusion’, they include all the kids, all the dyslexics and autists and those with ADHD, then make it impossible for them to access the learning, it’s a kind of punishment. ’You are allowed to learn with us, but you will have to do it the way we do’. I mean honestly, I would bring back special schools, but call them Schools for the Neuro-diverse. Then offer alternative learning experiences, I would only employ teachers who taught in experimental ways who had vision and belief. And all the average kids would be banging on the door to get in, but we would say, ’No, I’m sorry but you fit within the normal range go back to your mainstream mediocrity, you are not welcome here!’” Emma stopped, and Jim didn’t have an answer or comment, even a thought about what to add. “You know the worst thing, the worst thing is this ’it never did me any harm’ attitude, people in charge, the ones making all the decisions do it from such a limited perspective. They don’t move things on because ’it never did me any harm’, as if anyone is completely sorted out, with no hang ups or insecurities. What if it did do us harm? Supposing the majority did do things in a way that benefit the minority? That can be just as valuable? Wouldn’t that really be ‘inclusion’!” Jim had never heard Emma express herself so passionately, it unnerved him. Emma must have noticed. “Sorry.” she added, “it’s just so unfair.”

“It will work out, you know. Plenty of times with my own daughter I have battled with worry over what she could or couldn’t do, whether I should have done this for her or stopped her doing that. But in the end, they find their way, in spite of what you did or didn’t do. It works out. You do your best and that’s all you ask of them.” Jim felt a little surprised and proud of his speech, but when he looked at Emma, he could see she wasn’t really convinced.

“Walk home the way that takes in the slope, see if the ice on that puddle is still intact. You won’t regret it, I promise you.” Emma collected the two empty coffee cups, “See you next time,” she said. She walked off hooking a piece of ice out of the puddle with her boot and stamping on it. “so good.”

Jim watched her go, followed by a rather cold looking Paddy. Boo looked up at him pleadingly, so he got up and walked in the direction of the slope. Boo immediately bucked up and trotted on ahead. Sure enough, at the top of the slope was an iced over puddle. Jim checked that no one was coming, then he lifted his foot and crunched a hole in the ice. The puddle was long and shallow, so he stepped again, and a third time but his foot caught under the ice and on his next step he stumbled. It was at this point a man turned the corner in front of Jim, he was a young man with a beard and several dogs around him,

“Be careful, Guvnor, didn’t you see it?” He asked.

“I did see it, and she was right, it is very satisfying, and it was worth it.” Jim smiled at the confused young man and walked off holding his head as high as his embarrassment would let him.

*******

When Caroline came next, she sensed the atmosphere had changed and she seemed brighter in herself.

“Hi Dad, I’ve got good news” she said, when Jim opened the door to her, “What’s the capital of France?” Before he had time to realise it was another of her tests, and think to give her the right answer, she was through the door and in the kitchen. She refilled the kettle, with too much water and put it on. Jim had worked out exactly how much water was needed for his china mug, and how much more for a guest who would likely to be staying for one cup.

Caroline never stayed for more than one cup of tea, and she had filled the kettle with too much water. Jim had perfected this art, not just to save the planet, as everyone was always going on about, but also because it saved time and probably money in the long run. He tried not to let it irritate him, but felt himself biting his bottom lip, then consciously telling himself to let it go.

“You look better”, she said standing back and studying his form. “How’s the dog?”

Jim pulled a non-comital expression. He and Boo just co-existed. Boo-Boo wasn’t much of a guard dog. He really only made an appearance when he wanted something. His walk, his meals or to be let out for a wee. Other than that Jim wouldn’t know he was really there except for the nest of covers on the bed in the spare room. The dog had decided that was his room, although he sometimes slunk down of an evening and joined Jim on the sofa. It made Jim smile sometimes as it was a bit like having an unpaid guest.

After emptying the shopping, Caroline always felt she should bring, and making the tea, she joined him with two cupful’s in the living room. She put the cups gently down on the coffee table and slumped on the sofa, just as she had always seemed to have done. The juxtaposition of her business suit and the noisy exhaling of air as she landed on the soft furnishing was amusing. The girl she was, was in there somewhere. “I haven’t sat down all day. They do ‘standing meetings now’, they are supposed to be more dynamic and less wasteful of time. But bloody hell, I’m exhausted.”

“Well?”

“’Well?’ What?”

“Your news?”

“Oh. Okay, well I have heard from Barbara.”

“Barbara who?”

“You know, Barbara, Boo-Boo’s former owner. Barbara who went to Manchester?”

“Oh. Did you tell her Boo is doing fine, that I’m taking very good care of him, begrudgingly.” He joked.

“Well,” Caroline paused suddenly looking as if she was wondering if this really was good news or not. “Barbara’s loving Manchester. She’s doing really well and she’s looking to buy a house, and if everything works-out she will be able to take Boo-Boo back.” Jim took a while to process this information. He felt he should be happy. He never wanted the dog in the first place.

“You look unsure,” Caroline added trying to read the expression on her father’s face. “I mean, it’s a process that could take months, of course…I thought you’d be pleased.” In his mind Jim was running through what all this actually meant. No having to get up early but having to engage in conversation with Mrs Anderson more. No fresh air and exercise but no picking up poo and mud. No more need to buy over-priced coffee, but no reason to see Emma. On balance it was a huge loss, he tried to cover.

“Of course, I am pleased.” He said after a pause. “Boo-Boo is her dog; he doesn’t seem to really want to be with me. It is, it really is good news”

“Where is he anyway?”

“Probably up on the bed in the spare room. He’s a bit like having an unpaying lodger, but I can’t say I won’t miss him completely. As a lodger he comes downstairs in the evening to watch TV with me most nights and I wouldn’t get out so much without him.”

“I feel I’ve upset you now.” It was Caroline who looked upset to Jim, so he must have looked devastated. He tried to think of a complaint that he didn’t really have.

“He costs me a fortune in dog food, and that spare room is going to need a proper clean when he goes…” he said unconvincingly.

“As I said, it could take months.” Caroline looked at her watch, obviously their time was running out. “Look,” she added, “let’s take him out before he goes, if he goes, just the two of us. Let’s make a day of it. We could go to that place near that hairpin bend in the road, up on the heath, there’s a café there, Norbury Lane Parklands, or something? We could have a walk and get some lunch. You know when it gets a bit warmer, near your Birthday. I could pick you up in the morning, I’d get a day off work.” Judging by Caroline’s offer Jim thought he must look really upset, a day off work! “And when he goes, if he goes, if you really want, we can get you another dog, there are hundreds of dogs looking for new homes, okay?”

“Well, I am not sure that will be necessary.” He tried to smile nonchalantly. He was glad Caroline was about to leave, he needed some time to assimilate this information. He was sure it would be fine; he never wanted the damn thing. He had managed perfectly well before Boo-Boo appeared, he would cope just as well again., right?

“Well Dad, I’ll call you later in the week.” She put the cups in the kitchen and retrieved her jacket and bag, Jim remained seated. “What’s the time to the nearest hour?” She called out as she left the house.

“I’ve no idea”, Jim replied. There was a pause before he heard the door click shut.

Jim went upstairs to see if he was right and he found Boo-Boo in the spare room, on the bed. Jim’s intention was to sit next to him on the bed and tell him the news, but as he entered Boo-Boo looked up guiltily and slinked off the bed, uncomfortable at being disturbed. Later, Jim found him back in his basket in the kitchen.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.