9 Not enough time
Her father got home late that night. He’d recently started a new job in the office of a factory miles out of town – it wasn’t any more money but seemed to involve much longer hours. She was ready for bed by the time he arrived home. As soon as she heard the door, she bounded from the bathroom basin, toothbrush still in mouth, to the top of the stairs, intending to rush down to meet him.
But he looked so tired and old, his face kind of grey and his eyes dull and lifeless, that she almost didn’t recognise him. Her mother said something from the kitchen that she couldn’t quite catch.
‘I can’t help it, darling. The contract had to be completed tonight; and I’m the one ultimately responsible if the order doesn’t get filled.’
‘I know, Nathan, I know.’ Her mother came out into the hall. ‘But we miss you in the evenings. You barely have time to eat before it’s time to sleep …’
‘Hi, Dad!’ called Elisha, impatiently cutting her mother off as she came down the stairs, swallowing minty toothpaste foam. They always used that toothpaste that made your teeth ping and gave you a white ring of confidence.
‘Hey, princess.’ His sad, wise face looked lined – creases formed around his eyes as he smiled – but the gleam was still in them when he looked at her. ‘Did you have a good day?’
She ran forward to hug him, feeling his sweater’s coarse weave, cold from the night air, smelling smoke and petrol from deep in the fabric. He held her and patted the top of her head. ‘Now you’re getting toothpaste on my jumper,’ he admonished, as the hand with the toothbrush in clutched his back.
‘Time for bed, Elisha. And your dad needs to eat something. So kiss goodnight and up you go.’
She kissed them both and retreated upstairs again, but there was a heavy feeling at the top of her chest, like you sometimes got in the winter when you walked quickly and the air was too cold for your lungs. It was almost but not quite a pain. She felt troubled and all the happiness of the day seemed to leak out of her, till she was empty and chilled, shivering in her pyjamas, although it was July.
She could hear her parents’ muted voices from downstairs. They sounded like they were arguing. Again, the sounds were strangely soothing, calming her to sleep after a few minutes.
The next morning she got down for breakfast, expecting to see her dad there, eating toast and reading the paper, but there was no sign of him. She slid into her chair at the kitchen table and looked askance at her mother. ‘Where’s Dad?’
‘He had to go to work, baby.’
‘Already?’ she whined. ‘I normally see him before he leaves.’
‘I know, darling, but he has a lot of work on at the moment.’ Her mother put a boiled egg in a happy-faced chick egg cup in front of her and a piece of buttered toast cut into soldiers to dip in it on a quarter-plate beside it. ‘Hold on, I’ll take the top off for you.’ A knife sliced off the top of the egg and Elisha picked up her teaspoon.
‘Do you want some juice?’ She nodded, with her mouth full, and dipped a finger of toast into the little heap of salt on the plate before putting it into the egg yolk. Her mother set a tumbler of juice in front of her.
‘Mmm.’ Elisha sipped some. She breakfasted in thoughtful silence for a while before asking, ‘Is Dad mad at you, Mum?’
‘Is he mad at me, then?’
‘Of course not. He just had to go to work.’
‘I wish he didn’t have to work so hard.’
‘Mmm, me too. But then, at least he’s got a job.’
Elisha knew that her father had the job so they’d have money, for something to do with the house, a more-gidge or something, that you had to pay every month. Also, so that her mum would have shopping money and she herself pocket money. It seemed you had to have a job for anyone to give you money. She knew that both her parents had had jobs before she was born.
And her parents often said, when she complained about going to school, that work was worse and that her schooldays would be the best of her life. Though she couldn’t really believe that. If this was as good as it got, it seemed like the rest of her life was going to be truly awful.
‘Can I ride my bike to school today, Mum?’
Her mother sighed, no doubt not relishing the prospect of shepherding her daughter on bike along the pavement to school. ‘If you want, darling.’
‘Brilliant.’ She finished breakfast and ran upstairs to brush her teeth.
‘Comb your hair,’ her mother called up after her.
The last day of school always made Elisha feel elated and sad at the same time. She longed for the long summer days, lying in in the mornings if she wanted, meeting up with Jas and Steph to go shopping or to the park. But she was also kind of scared of the blank expanse of it, without the routine of school every day to break it up.
The day itself was usually fun though. A lot of the kids had brought in games and in the afternoon they were allowed to play them instead of having classes.
Of course there were arguments. Veronica had the newest games and she’d only let her best friends play, and a couple of the boys. Elisha had forgotten to bring any and had idly joined in the teacher’s game of hangman on the whiteboard, with Luke and some others, while Jas and Steph tussled over a Spirograph.
‘O,’ she suggested, when Miss Quigley asked her for a letter.
‘No.’ A small line came down from the end of the gibbet. Elisha sighed and gazed out the window. She’d rather be outside making daisy chains and looking for four-leaf clover. She got out her last cherry-flavoured Blob and slipped it into her mouth when the teacher was looking the other way. They’d bought a tube on the way to school, escaping the heat for a moment and relishing the dark interior of the sweetshop. She sighed, more loudly than she’d meant to.
‘Are you bored?’ Luke was standing at her elbow, hugging himself with crossed arms.
‘Mmm,’ she said. ‘And sleepy.’
‘And eating a sweet, naughty.’
‘Sh.’ She glanced nervously at Miss Quigley. ‘I’d give you one but it was the last one, sorry.’
‘That’s okay. The cancer means I’m not allowed to have them any more anyway.’ She gulped and stared at him, nearly swallowing the boiled sweet. ‘Just kidding, you dumbo.’
‘Sometimes the last day of school seems like it’s never going to end.’
They both looked at the big wall clock, the black hands appearing completely stationary.
‘Wouldn’t it be weird if time suddenly stopped?’
Elisha shuddered without knowing why. Boys did say funny things.
‘Do you want to play Buckaroo with us once Jas and Steph have finished?’ she asked.
‘We could be stuck in this classroom for ever,’ Luke continued in a doomy whisper. ‘Playing hangman, waiting for three o’clock.’
‘Shut up, Luke.’ The idea unnerved her and he could see this in her eyes and frown as well as hear it in the snappiness of her tone.
‘Honestly, Elisha. It’s not going to happen – and there are worse places to be stuck if it did.’ Maybe he was thinking about hospital wards. Perhaps he was worrying about the future.
Jas and Steph had to give the Spirograph back to Veronica; and Luke and Elisha moved over to join their table. Buckaroo was fun and Elisha was good at it. Luke’s hand tended to shake a bit so he had more trouble. But in fact they didn’t get to finish the game. The school bell rang twice to mark the end of the day … the hands on the clock had moved round while they weren’t looking.
A couple of days later she found herself thinking about Great Aunt Jessie. Sometimes in the holidays they’d used to have the old lady to stay for a few days. She’d sleep in Elisha’s room while Elisha slept on the sofa. Sleeping somewhere different was exciting, like being on holiday. And her mum would go out shopping and leave them alone together for hours, ‘So we can look after each other,’ her aunt had joked.
They’d make biscuits or plant bulbs or look at photo albums or Aunt Jessie would tell stories about things that had happened when she was young. Or she would plait silken blue ribbons into Elisha’s hair. Or they’d stick Green Shield stamps in the little collector books – the paste on the back of the stamps was delicious. Her aunt would save these up and be able to buy something with completed books, probably a present for one of the family. Elisha felt down knowing none of this would happen this summer, that she’d never see her great aunt again. And curious that, even in long, enchanted days together, Jessie had never once mentioned the wishing well. She also felt a bit guilty keeping the magic of the well a secret from her mother, but somehow she knew she shouldn’t tell her about it.
She got it out and set it on her desk, looking at it sternly and seriously in silence for a long time, as if she expected it to talk and explain itself. Could you tell from looking at it that it was a magic well? Not really. Maybe she’d imagined the coins turning into gold. Maybe everything that had happened had just been a coincidence …
She should test it. And then she should wish for something good and unselfish, that wouldn’t backfire on her. Luke’s face turned to the classroom clock came to her, his half-wishing that time would stop, while he was in remission, while he didn’t have to have chemotherapy, which she’d spelt as ‘keymo’ in her head and imagined doctors and nurses trying to fit different keys into Luke’s head to make it work better.
Fumbling a five-pence piece from the back of the horse’s head, she dropped it into the well, closing her eyes as a whoosh of cold air hit her face, and the silver coin disappeared into a dark shaft. ‘I wish Luke’s cancer never comes back,’ she intoned solemnly. She opened her eyes again, when she didn’t hear the coin land in the water. She gasped to see the well was the size of the room – she was lucky it hadn’t landed on her feet. Her bed and desk had disappeared. The ceiling of her room had gone – it was open to the sky and she could see the sides of other houses.