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20 Crash, bang, wallop

As they were entering the new block (everybody called it that, although it had been there since Elisha started at the school), they met Mrs Goodman in the corridor, still in her dinner lady uniform, evidently on an errand for a teacher, arms laden with paint pots and brushes, struggling to wedge a door open with her foot.

It was weird – Elisha had thought she’d been all right until she saw her mum. She’d actually felt calm, almost like everything was happening to someone else. But once she saw her, it was like a dam burst inside her. Something in her chest gave way as she ran crashing into her mother, as Jasmine had done to her earlier, knocking paint pots and brushes and everything flying, throwing her arms around her as if her mum were the only secured item she could hold on to on the deck of the Titanic. Not saying anything, just clinging on tight, her face pressed into the folds of the print blouse her mum was wearing, inhaling the Avon honeysuckle perfume she’d put on that morning. Her mum smelt fresh, like a bouquet of flowers, and Elisha inhaled her like a drug, maybe some kind of tranquilliser.

Behind them, Miss Clements was dispatching Jasmine and Luke to their classroom, saying a few words to the teacher inside. Over Elisha’s head, she and Mrs Goodman nodded to each other before Miss Clements continued to the school office.

‘Now, Elisha, baby, what on earth has happened?’ Her mum stroked her hair and said, ‘Sh, sh, it’s okay.’

Choked up, Elisha couldn’t get any words out. She just felt so much better being with her mum. Gradually, she relinquished her hold, relaxed a little. ‘Jasmine says Steph got stung by a wasp … She, she got an afillact … an afilly whatsit … she had an allergic reaction!’

‘Oh, I heard about that; I’d no idea it was Stephanie. Don’t worry, darling. I was just in the office and Mr Saunders called to say she was going to be fine.’

‘Really?’ Elisha’s voice came out weak and reedy.

‘Really. She’s fine. Now …’

Elisha followed her mum’s gaze around the corridor, where the plastic pots lay everywhere, on their sides, on their tops, some standing casually upright. A couple of lids had come off, one pot on its side was oozing a puddle of thick ochre paint. Another one was open and upright and a paintbrush had landed in it, handle upwards out of the viscous emerald liquid, like it was all ready to go.

A little redheaded girl put her head out of the classroom. ‘Miss,’ she whispered, ‘I’m meant to find out what’s happening to the painting stuff.’ Her head swivelled round to take in the mess in the corridor and her mouth opened wide. ‘Oh my!’ She stuck her right thumb in the corner of her mouth.

‘Um,’ Elisha’s mum whispered back, ‘We had a little accident, I’m afraid, Lucy. Do you think you could help us clear it up?’

Lucy nodded rather solemnly. ‘Yes.’ She began picking up the scattered brushes, only using one hand as she didn’t take the thumb out of her mouth.

‘Elisha, run and get some paper towels from the girls’ loos.’

‘Yes, Mum.’ Elisha felt suddenly useful and normal again. She ran down the corridor gladly as they were never allowed to run usually. As she was hurtling round the corner she nearly knocked right into Mr Wicks, one of the sterner teachers. ‘What do we think we’re doing, young lady?’ His face had that mock stern expression that Elisha’s father sometimes adopted so she knew she wasn’t really in trouble.

‘There’s been an accident. Not a serious one,’ she added as she saw his face register alarm. ‘Just paint and stuff.’ She took his hand and pulled him round the corner. ‘See.’

‘Oh, yes, I see. Well, carry on then. But try not to run. And I’ll get Mr Choate. He can help clear it up.’ He started walking in the other direction.

‘Mr Wicks, is it true Stephanie’s all right now? Did Mr Saunders call from the hospital?’

‘Yes, she’s fine. They’re going to keep her in a couple of days, for tests. In fact, that reminds me, I’m looking for Jasmine Richards to let her know.’

‘She’ll be in Room 5.’

By the time she got back with handfuls of paper towels, her mum and Lucy had got all the paint tubs back vertical again and replaced all their lids. Lucy had taken her thumb out of her mouth and was chattering about paint or something – ‘Purple’s my favourite colour’ she was confiding in Elisha’s mum – while picking up two pots at a time and carefully taking them into the classroom. Once she had charge of the tubs, she abruptly clammed up and looked like she was holding her breath until she could put them down again. Elisha gave her mum a wadge of olive-green paper towels, then started wiping up the ochre paint from the creamy-brown caramelly colour corridor floor.

She ended up missing all her next lesson, which was Maths, so that was good. Her mum said that they could visit Steph that evening; and take Jasmine as well if she wanted to come.

At lunch break, she talked to Jasmine about what had happened. She didn’t want to leave her friend alone. And there was no sign of Luke. Sometimes, since he got cancer, he would just disappear at breaks – she didn’t know where he went, some secret place where he could be away from everyone else, the kids that had stared at his hair and stuff.

But at story time she made sure she sat next to him as they’d arranged. Before Miss Quigley began, while she was waiting for all the children to pick places and settle and stop talking, stop arguing and vying for position, they leant their heads close together and talked in low, secret voices like they were spies evading detection.

‘You know you have to change what you were going to wish for, don’t you?’ Luke muttered, their foreheads almost touching as they bent forward over their crossed legs.

‘You think I should wish for Steph to get better, don’t you?’

‘Not only that.’ He looked around suspiciously as if someone might be trying to hear them. ‘You have to wish that she never gets stung by a wasp again – because a second sting could kill her.’

Elisha’s eyes widened. ‘But won’t they give her drugs to stop the allergy, like with hay fever?’

‘Elisha, it’s much more serious than that. They might give her a syringey-thing and she’ll have to carry it with her for ever, just in case she gets stung.’ He thought about this. ‘Probably not in the winter though but only when there are wasps around.’ His voice was actually getting louder and more urgent as he got excited. ‘Then, if she does get stung, she has to inject the antidote! I saw it in a movie!’

The children near them laughed as Miss Quigley cleared her throat pointedly to get their attention. They both glanced up at her apologetically. ‘If you’re quite finished, Luke, I’ll start the story?’

‘Yes, Miss, sorry, Miss.’ He looked penitently down until she started then flashed a conspiratorial grin at Elisha. She grinned back. He’d worried her about Steph but she guessed she’d probably find out the truth at the hospital that night.