Wes didn’t get to say goodbye to his grandma, and that hurt. Neither did his dad, Daniel. His mum, Anita, couldn’t because she was in hospital too but it was her mind that was ill. Wes and Daniel didn’t talk about it, and hadn’t mentioned her since the funeral Wes had missed because he was “too young”. Daniel seemed to think Wes was too young for almost everything except school, and thanks to the virus he couldn’t go there either.
When Wes’s granddad rang and asked to speak to him, Daniel whispered, “Be brave”, and Granddad turned on his chirpy voice so Wes mostly said yes and no and all right. Wes did his crying on his own, with the volume down.
When lockdown first started, Wes’s dad had tried with Maths and understood most of it even though he said it had all changed since he was at school. The two of them had done a lot of P.E. in the back garden – mostly football, which was Daniel’s favourite. But when Grandma died, Daniel stopped talking about Wes’s education and mostly just wanted him to “be good”. That meant no noise, especially no crying. Wes gave up looking at the row of books on his shelf because he couldn’t read the words and Daniel was always too tired for a story. “Not now,” or “Maybe later,” he’d say. Wes remembered his mum saying Daniel wasn’t a very good reader but he was a grown-up so that made no sense.
Wes hoped his mum wasn’t too ill to miss him but maybe she didn’t remember him at all. She called herself a bookworm and that was what Wes wanted to be. He had been in Reception last time he saw her and he was Year One now, but he had a photo in a frame beside his bed, of him standing on her lap, with one hand on her nose, when he was a baby. In the picture he was laughing and so were her eyes.
He didn’t remember when she stopped smiling. All he knew was that she wasn’t well enoughyet but one dayshe’d come home from hospital and that would be the best day in his whole life. He’d stopped asking when, because that made his dad worse. Sometimes he was grumpy and Wes didn’t know what to be sorry for.
At Christmas Daniel said they couldn’t afford a tree and Santa didn’t leave much in Wes’s stocking, just a little scratched car, a woolly hat and a big bag of crisps. The two of them watched more telly than usual and Daniel drank more beer and ate more chocolates.
“I know Christmas has been a bit rubbish,” he told Wes at the end of Boxing Day, when he’d emptied his last can. “Apart from the card you made me. That was great, that card.”
Wes smiled. He’d worked hard on it, secretly, with cotton wool that stuck to his fingers.
“The year’s been rubbish,” said Daniel. “Maybe 2021 will be better. Can’t be any worse, right?”
Wes shook his head. He didn’t see how. “Mum might come home, and you might get your job back.”
“Yeah,” said Daniel, “but not till the Martians have landed.” Then he laughed, so Wes laughed too, until Daniel suddenly stopped and left no smile behind.
2021 had a cold beginning and they had to put another layer on for indoors in case Daniel couldn’t pay the electricity bill. Wes was looking forward to going back to school even though his shoes were a bit tight.
But after one day of new rules and feeling funny, school closed again.
“Where’s this laptop the government promised?” asked Daniel, shaking his head. “You can’t learn online without one.”
“Maybe they forgot,” said Wes. Sometimes Daniel forgot things he promised.
“Yeah, they’re good at forgetting people like us.”
“I’m good at remembering,” Wes told him. He’d never forget Grandma and when he looked at the picture of Mum laughing, he could add on the audio because her laugh was like doggy breaths.
“Why aren’t you a key worker?” Wes asked his dad.
“I’m not any kind of worker now.”
The next day a little van parked next-door and Wes saw an old lady jump down. She had had short, stiff curls like Wes but hers were greyer.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“New neighbour I suppose.” Daniel didn’t like the old neighbours, who had gone without saying goodbye, because they were noisy.
Wes waved from the window and the old lady waved back.
“I might make her a card,” he said, “and put it through her letterbox.”
His dad looked serious. “That’s what your mother would do.”
Then he shuffled off to the kitchen, leaving Wes to imagine the card his mum would make. He remembered what Anita looked like in sharpie. Because he had an idea that she’d draw flowers, he tried to do that too, on a piece of paper from his drawing book. The pen made the stems too fat and when his dad came back he said, “Lollipops? Nice.”
Wes printed his name inside with a W that looked like it was falling over. His dad did a kind of squiggle and wrote 14 so she would know who sent it. Wes wanted to post it through her letterbox all on his own, so Daniel watched him run next-door, crouch down low to feed it through and then run back. Then he ruffled his curly hair but Wes didn’t know why.
It rained all morning and Wes practised drawing flowers so he could show his mum when she came home. He could tell his dad was fed up from the way he huffed slowly in front of the telly and changed the channel a lot. Nothing really happened, apart from a white cat dashing across the garden so fast that Daniel missed it. But it was Wes’s favourite soup for lunch: creamed tomato. Daniel tried to wipe his mouth afterwards and Wes protested that he wasn’t a baby.
When the rain finally stopped, Wes went into the garden where the grass was long but muddy. Suddenly he heard an upstairs window open next-door and saw a red sleeve lean out to shake a yellow duster.
“Hello!” she called. “I’m Mrs Hall and you must be the artist called Wes. That was so kind. Please thank your mum and dad for me.”
“Mm,” said Wes. It felt rude to shout.
“I can tell we’ll be friends,” she told him, and waved goodbye as she closed the window.
Wes missed friends and Daniel couldn’t afford a dog or a cat, but he couldn’t see how he could play with Mrs Hall, even if she was fit and fast, because of the virus.
Over the next few days they exchanged a few waves. On a cold but dry morning he saw her hanging out her washing, so he put on his wellies and went outside. Because he knew she couldn’t see him through the fence, Wes went to the pound-sized hole in one section and squinted through it. He felt like a spy, but a friendly one.
“Are you there, Wes?” she asked.
“Yes! Have you got X-ray eyes?”
She laughed. “Just good ears!” She wiggled hers.
She asked him a few questions about school and learning but there wasn’t much to say about that so she wanted to know what he liked best.
“Drawing,” he said, “and elephants and whales and chocolate cake.”
“I call that excellent taste,” she said, before she shivered and went indoors.
After dark that afternoon, Wes heard something come through the letter box. They never had proper post with handwriting on the envelope, and this handwriting was big and bright blue. He took it to his dad, who just stared at it before he put it on the kitchen worktop.
“Aren’t you going to see who it’s from?”
“Later,” said Daniel. “My eyes are tired.” It sounded as if all of him was tired but they hadn’t even had tea yet.
At Wes’s bedtime, the letter was still where he’d left it. Wes didn’t like to mention it again or his dad would say he was nagging, but he thought he knew who it was from. Mrs Hall. That was why it had no stamp. He wished he knew what it said. He was just going upstairs when there was thud as a book landed on the doormat. It had whales all over the cover, and when he opened it up there were pages with tabs to pull and make them swim, or dive or leap out of the water. A little bit of paper dropped to the floor, with handwriting in the same blue pen. A present from Mrs Hall, and it wasn’t even Christmas! Wes took it up to bed and looked at it under his duvet with a torch.
Suddenly his dad opened the door. “Hey! What are you doing?”
Wes showed him the book but he didn’t seem very pleased. “I hope she’s not a busybody,” he said.
“I think she’s very busy,” Wes told him, because she’d said she was going to bring her garden back to life.
“Ha,” said Daniel, and ruffled his curls again. “Go to sleep now.”
Wes imagined his mum getting excited and reading the book to him, whatever the time was.
In the morning, Wes found Mrs Hall’s letter in the kitchen bin – the whole letter, still in its envelope. He took it out, unfolded the paper and tried to give it to Daniel when he came out of the bathroom in his dressing gown.
“Leave it, Wes, all right?”
“It might be important. Why don’t you see?”
Daniel sighed. “I left that stuff to your mum.”
“But she’s not here!” cried Wes, his voice rising and folding in.
“I know that! You think I don’t know?” Daniel’s voice rose too, but then he muttered, “My reading’s not the best. You know that!”
He looked to Wes as if he might cry and Wes wouldn’t know what to do if he did so he just said, “Never mind, Dad,” and took the letter to the recycling bag.
A couple of days later, when he saw Mrs Hall washing her car, he hurried outside, leaving the front door open and hoping Daniel wouldn’t notice because he was watching football.
He thanked her for the book and she said she hoped he liked it, and that she had a few more he might enjoy in a box she needed to unpack.
“From my teaching days,” she said. “Did your dad find my letter?”
Wes hesitated. “He doesn’t know what it says.”
“Ah.” Mrs Hall nodded to herself and gave her car quite a fierce scrub. She didn’t say anything for a while. “I’m selling this and getting me a cargo bike.”
“Cool,” said Wes. He had an idea. He knew Daniel’s phone number by heart so he told her what it was and she put it on her phone.
“I’ll call him and explain,” she said.
Wes hoped his dad wouldn’t mind. He ran back inside and waited for the sound of Daniel’s ring tone. It still hadn’t rung by the evening and he wondered whether his dad had paid the bill. Then, as he closed his eyes, he heard it over the telly. He crept out onto the landing to listen because Daniel was standing in the hall. But he wasn’t saying anything and he had one hand on his head.
“We don’t need charity,” he said in the end. “Thank you very much.”
Wes didn’t understand, but his dad went back to the telly so he couldn’t ask. Getting back into bed, he felt sad enough to cry but he didn’t want to start because sometimes it was hard to stop. Then there was a knock on the door because the doorbell didn’t work. Wes crept onto the landing again.
“I’m sorry but I think there’s been a misunderstanding.” That was Mrs Hall’s voice. He tiptoed round to the top of the stairs, and saw Daniel opening the door and stepping outside. All Wes could do was lie in bed and guess what they were saying – until he heard the door close and his dad climbing the stairs.
“I thought you were snooping,” Daniel said, but not crossly. “You’d better come downstairs and I’ll tell you what your friend Mrs Hall had to say.”
That was how the lessons began. Mrs Hall was a fun teacher. She lent him a laptop she didn’t need, and a tiny camera to clip on top of it, so that she could talk to him on screen from next-door, with the alphabet and songs and pictures. And mostly with her cat Snowflake on her lap, listening. Or sleeping. When she gave Wes more picture books sometimes he could nearly tell what some of the words said. And soon reading didn’t seem so hard.
“You’re a superfast learner,” Mrs Hall told him.
Wes thought how pleased his mum would be. He still did P.E. with Daniel, and sometimes he had a lesson from his old classroom, and spoke to his teacher, who said she was amazed at his reading and he was an absolute star. Mrs Hall didn’t believe in homework but she made him games to play and gave him a globe so he could find some of the countries in the world. She invited him to come and explore her garden, where she’d labelled the grass and a holly bush, and the bird feeder, the nest box and a sandpit. And he had to point to Snowflake’s head and tail and whiskers and paws. Mrs Hall stayed on the other side of the patio door, giving him directions like: “Two steps forward, one to the left… what do you see?”
He scattered some wildflower seeds at the end of her garden and she gave him some to take home and plant in his own, to make the bees happy. Sometimes, when it wasn’t too cold, he put on his coat and beanie hat and she taught him through the patio door, while he sat in a garden chair at a little garden table, and Snowflake watched as if he was learning too. One day Wes told her about Grandma, and another time he drew a picture of Anita and wrote Mum is illwith an arrow pointing to her head. Mrs Hall was always kind, but she said it was all right to be sad, and the important thing was to keep on loving.
By the time it was safe to go back to school, Wes felt taller on the inside. It was good to have children to play with, and he took the white cat Mrs Hall had knitted for him so he didn’t miss Snowflake. Reading made it easy to find out things and every day he brought home a different story to read to Daniel, who didn’t seem to mind.
One day when Daniel met him in the playground, he said he had a surprise for him.
“Is it Mum?”
Daniel looked sad for a moment. “Not Mum, but it’s a good surprise.”
As soon as they arrived home, Daniel pulled Wes’s reading book out of his folder.
“Make yourself comfortable then,” he said, patting the sofa and sitting down next to him. He opened the book and started to read it out loud, turning to Wes and grinning between sentences. Wes’s mouth fell open and he bounced on the sofa.
“Dad!” cried Wes. “Your reading IS the best!”
“Yes well,” said his dad. “We had a good teacher – your Mrs Hall. Not such a busybody after all.”
Wes bounced again. “She’s been double busy!”
“We’ll have to find a way to thank her,” said Daniel, “when this virus is over with.”
“You could teach her to play football!”
Daniel laughed so happily that it made Wes stare because he hadn’t really remembered what that laugh sounded like.
“Yeah, if that’s what she wants. Anything we can do, we’ll do it, right?”
“Make her a chocolate cake like Mum’s.”
“And help her eat it.”
Daniel laughed again and Wes laughed too. They agreed that after tea they’d do some more reading together and Daniel said there was a word game Mrs Hall had made that they could both play.
“You won’t beat me!” cried Wes, even though he wouldn’t mind losing one bit.
They headed into the kitchen. Wes thought his dad had a different walk as well as a different face.
“Tell you what, Wes, when Mum comes home she’s going to be proud of us.”
“Well, well, well proud,” said Wes.
Tea was going to be curry. Daniel was stirring in the spices and singing, “Lean on me” when his phone rang and Wes passed it to him. He wiped his hand on his jeans.
“Hello?” said Daniel. “Yes it is. Any news?”
Listening, he sucked in his lips and his chest lifted. Doctor, he mouthed. He looked at Wes, reached for his hand and squeezed it hard.
“Yes! Yes!” Daniel smiled as if that was hard to do. Still he waited. Then Wes could hear that there was a different voice on the phone. His mouth opened in a question but he thought he knew the answer.
“We can tell her now,” Daniel said.