8 An old friend made anew
At lunchtime Elisha carried her tray carefully to the lines of tables near the big windows in the dining hall. She looked round for Jas and Steph but didn’t see them at first. She did spot Luke, sitting at the end of one of the last tables, all alone, his scrawny shoulders hunched and defeated, like he wanted to disappear. For a second she hesitated, thinking he might bring her mood down, and then she felt bad and remembered what her mum had said, so she marched right over and sat opposite him. He raised his head and recognised her but didn’t smile or say anything. She had to settle her elbows carefully to avoid putting them in a puddle of gravy someone had spilt there.
‘Hi, Luke.’ She forked up a bit of sausage and dipped it in some mash and gravy.
‘Hello.’ He just seemed to be pushing his food around his plate listlessly.
‘Aren’t you hungry?’
‘Not really.’ He sipped from a glass of water on his tray, three or four tiny sips like he couldn’t manage any more at one go.
‘You should eat something. It’s really not that bad today.’
‘I know. How do I expect to get well if I don’t eat anything?’ She’d never heard this sarcastic tone from Luke before and didn’t really know what to say back. ‘If the cancer’s going to kill me, it’s going to kill me whether I’ve eaten today or not.’
‘I know. That’s not what I meant. Not that I think the cancer’s going to kill you either. I’m sure it …’. She’d started to babble – it was embarrassing.
‘Why are you sitting with me?’
‘Well, you were all alone.’
He snorted – he was angry, which surprised her. ‘I’ve been alone for a long time. You haven’t bothered with me for months.’
She looked down because she knew it was true. Still, it seemed impolite of him to point it out.
‘Why are you here now? Because you feel sorry for me, that’s why.’ He stared at her belligerently, not at all like the mild boy she used to know.
He was right – she did feel sorry for him. But that was no excuse for him being nasty to her. ‘I’ll move if you’re not going to be friendly,’ she warned, abruptly pushing her bench back a few inches to stand up. This caused Josie Raymond to trip over the end of it as she tried to squeeze by to reach Veronica’s table.
‘Watch what you’re doing, stupid!’ snapped Josie as she struggled to extricate her leg from the narrow vee between the benches, while at the same time balancing her tray of food.
‘Sorry, Josie.’ Elisha stood up slightly and dragged her end of the bench forward. Unfortunately, this coincided with Josie trying to lift her trapped leg up to step over the bench-end and the sudden release made her lose her balance.
Suddenly she was toppling – Elisha and Luke gazed on – it was almost as if they could see it in slow motion – the brown tray tipping forward, Josie’s arms outstretched, fingers gripping the sides, everything sliding to the front of the tray, pink yoghurt in a shallow bowl, cutlery, the white dinner plate with its beefburgers and peas hitting the rim, tilting, the scoop of potato mash with hard lumps in flying into the air … As Josie crashed down onto the next set of benches and their occupants, screaming, the mash landed – in Veronica’s lap, so that she screamed too. Elisha’s mouth fell open. Everyone was yelling and exclaiming in the general commotion except for her and Luke, who she looked back to see, also open-mouthed, turning away from the scene. They stared at each other for a moment before Luke smiled. It was the first time Elisha remembered seeing him smile in ages. Somehow it transformed his face back into the one of the boy she’d been friends with before the cancer.
Veronica was shouting at Josie, who was now whimpering and in tears. One’s face was twisted in rage and the other’s crumpled in self-pity. Elisha and Luke began to giggle, sneaking looks across at the other girls and the awful mess everywhere.
Josie turned on them, suddenly angry. ‘This is all your fault, Elisha Goodman! Stop laughing right now!’ This made Elisha laugh even more. ‘Stop it! Stop it!’ shouted Josie, her face turning scarlet and her voice into a high-pitched squeal. Meanwhile Veronica was distastefully plucking the potato mash out of her lap, peas from her perfect hair, moaning to herself.
‘Let’s go.’ Elisha leaned forward to Luke, who nodded through his laughter, and they were both on their feet and out of the dining-hall entrance, colliding with each other in the corridor before walking on, and finding themselves hand in hand.
As they walked out into the playground, they met Jas and Steph coming the other way, and disengaged hands in mutual embarrassment. But Elisha felt happy nonetheless, like they’d mended some fences and were friends again.
‘The real hopscotch squares are free, Ellie, if you want to play with us,’ Jas announced, a bit breathlessly.
‘We’re just on our way over,’ Steph added, as she started to skip away.
‘And we’ve smuggled in Ker-knockers, so whoever’s out can try to break their wrists or whatever they’re supposed to do.’
Jasmine spoke in a loud stage whisper that made them all turn their heads to check for teachers before pulling out the banned toy to show them. Elisha was a little afraid of the heavy neon coloured balls that were deemed so dangerous. They even looked like an instrument of torture. But she didn’t dare say so.
She glanced at Luke, who didn’t seem overjoyed at the idea of Ker-knockers or hopscotch. ‘You go,’ he said. ‘I have to meet some friends for cricket anyway.’
She kind of knew this wasn’t true – he hadn’t played cricket or any other sport for ever so long. But she thought it was best that she pretend to believe him. ‘Okay, I’ll see you later.’ She followed her friends round the corner of the building to where the hopscotch squares had been painted on to the tarmac, but in paint quite cleverly made to look like chalk.
In the last lesson, Miss Quigley sat on a cushion to continue the story, the children all gathered on the floor around her, competing to be the nearest to the teacher. Elisha squashed in next to Luke, instead of sitting with Jas and Steph, crossing her legs so that their knees accidentally touched. She noticed hers were much sturdier and browner than his pale, skinny ones.
‘Hello,’ she mouthed. He smiled.
‘Miss!’ A boy’s hand shot up.
The teacher looked over to him. ‘Yes, Jack?’
‘Can I go to the toilet, please, miss?’ A snigger trickled round the room.
‘All right. Hurry up though or you’ll miss the story.’ Jack scrambled to his feet and ran out.
‘Mum says your cancer’s all gone now,’ Elisha whispered to Luke. ‘Is that true?’
‘It’s in remission, yes.’
Elisha had heard the word in movies and on TV shows but didn’t really know what it meant. She resolved to look it up in the dictionary when she got home. It was good news, that’s all she knew.
Jack bolted back into the room and skidded into his place on the floor at the back of the group. Elisha wondered if he’d washed his hands, as the words on the toilet roll told you to.
Miss Quigley began the story. The children stopped fidgeting and whispering to gaze at her, entranced. Elisha wanted the story to go on and on for ever, for the afternoon in the sunny classroom to never end. The kids’ pictures on the walls, the board with their names and stars on, the smell of the room, of plimsoles and water paints and pencil shavings, and the atmosphere of hushed expectation all thrilled her in a different way than before though she couldn’t have explained why.
But it did end. And when it did and she’d hefted her chair up onto her desk, along with everyone else, she felt obscurely liberated from the spell of the storyteller, the web of the story, the heady, hazy, make-believe world that seemed to exist inside all their heads at the same time.
At home, she reached up to the top shelf of the bookshelf in the lounge, to get the big dictionary. She knocked down a model kangaroo her cousins in Australia had sent over one Christmas and kissed its head as she set it upright again.
The dictionary pages smelt like old library books – she put her face in them and inhaled their perfume before flipping through the pages to the Rs: ‘remission – act of remitting; discharging of debt or penalty; forgiveness; pardon; abatement’. She looked up ‘abatement’ next and guessed that was what it must mean.
She’d managed to persuade her mum to let her keep the well upstairs in her room. Now she dusted it reverently (although how reverently can you dust something with an old pair of knickers?) but didn’t feel the need to wish for anything. Changing out of her school clothes, she heard the theme from the long-running TV soap start and ran down to the lounge to watch it. The opening credits were just ending as she threw herself onto the couch. Her mum was ironing a load of washing she’d brought back in a shopping trolley from the launderette on Station Road. Their old washing machine had broken down irretrievably last weekend.
‘Why didn’t you call me, Mum?’ she complained.
‘You haven’t missed any, darling,’ her mum replied, pausing to swig some Tizer from a long stripy glass.
‘That’s not answering the question,’ Elisha thought but didn’t think she’d better say so.