2010 Doris Gooderson – Second Place

Mum’s Best Friend, by David Wass

Mum changed when Grandad went to heaven. She used to be my best friend, but not any more. The vacuum cleaner’s taken over.

‘Josie! I said your school shoes should be in your room.’

It’s switched on now. In the hall. Mum’s shouting over it.

‘Not by the door where anyone could trip over them.’

She shouts at me all the time. Even when I’m at the dining table with my laptop supposedly doing my homework. Sometimes I wish she’d get a babysitter and go out with her mates again.

‘Coming!’ I call back.

Actually I’m on facebook. Tonight’s homework’s a doddle since Grandad started helping me. He’d only do it when Mum wasn’t around, though, otherwise his life wouldn’t be worth living. We’d laughed when he told me that.

Once, Mum heard him say he’d give me a hand. She went mad.

‘Now you listen to me, Josie. You can ask your grandad questions but he’s not doing it for you. Otherwise you won’t learn anything. Understood?’

Sure I did, but it wasn’t only that I thought someone as old as Grandad wouldn’t know stuff. There weren’t any questions to ask. Not then, anyway. Not until we started doing fractions. 

Then one evening, while Mum was out with her mates, Grandad noticed I was struggling. He winked at me and said, ‘I’ll help you, Josie, if you promise to keep it a secret. Your mum must never know. All right?’

‘Cross my heart,’ I said, doing it. Then clever old Grandad went on to explain fractions to me in such a way that I actually understood them.

That’s why I’m not doing my homework yet. It’s more fractions, so it won’t take long. Especially as Grandad will join me when I start, shaking his head or nodding depending on whether I’m getting them right.

I can tell when he’s around by the smell of that sweet tobacco he puts in his pipe. It always clings to his moustache so that when he kisses me goodnight I have to wash really hard to get it off. If I want to. Which sometimes I don’t.

‘Do you hear me? If they’re not moved in the next two minutes they’ll be in the bin!’

The vac’s gone quiet. I quickly finish off a message to one of my mates and nip into the hall.

Thankfully, she isn’t around. I grab the shoes and go to toss them into my room when suddenly she’s in the doorway with a red cloth wrapped round her head and waving a bright yellow duster.

‘Don’t you dare!’

‘Aaah,’ I yelp, leaping backwards into a table and knocking over a flower pot.

It falls off, landing on the wood brick floor with a loud crack. I watch, horrified, as soil spews out.

‘Your grandad gave me that plant,’ Mum screeches. ‘You’d better get that floor spotless while I look for another pot.’

She bustles off into the kitchen. I chuck the shoes into my room and go to the hall cupboard for a dustpan and brush.

There’s a funny lump in my throat as I brush up the soil. Grandad loved his garden. He knew all about plants. I remember him telling me how they need the sun as much as we do.

‘Think of a thick, deep wood that you’d have to squeeze through to get out the other side, Josie,’ he said, one night at bedtime. ‘Inside there, only the strongest, most determined little trees fight their way upwards so they catch the rays of sunshine. With me so far?’

I nod.

‘Good. Now imagine your school is the wood and you’re one of those trees. The only ones that become strong enough and tall enough to catch the sunlight are those who study hard. Those that don’t will always be in the dark. I want you to remember that.’

I’ll never forget it.

Swallowing, I pick up the dustpan and go into the kitchen. Mum takes it off me and hands over a flower pot.

‘You can get some compost from the garage,’ she says. ‘No more mess, mind.’

Then she disappears into the living room pushing her best friend in front of her.

I go through the door from the kitchen into the garage, clicking it shut behind me. I take my time spooning out the compost. Best to keep out of the way as long as possible.

It’s as I finish filling the pot that I hear a weird, gasping noise coming from the kitchen.

I tiptoe over to the door and open it a crack. Mum’s leaning on the sink, staring down at the flower in her hand. Her chest’s heaving. She’s sobbing.

I go over to her. ‘Mum? Are you all right?’

Nothing. Until all at once she splutters, ‘I… miss… my dad.’

I look on, bewildered. At the same time something clenches inside me. Whatever it is rises upwards, going faster and faster until my throat is tight and my head is full of pictures of Grandad. At first he’s sitting in the corner of the room, then he’s spinning me round by my arms in the garden, then I’m curled up on his lap while he tells me spooky stories that make me shiver.

And suddenly my eyes are running wet and I’m making squeaking noises and I don’t care because I’m wrapped up in my mum’s arms loving the warmth of her cuddly body and the smell of jasmine perfume while I weep and weep until there are no more tears left…

It’s late when I’m curled up beside Mum on the sofa in my pyjamas. She’s been showing me pictures.

‘And here’s one of your grandad and me in Niagara,’ she says, pointing at a photo of them standing arm in arm by a huge waterfall.

‘Right, that’s enough.’ She slaps the album shut. ‘It’s time you were in bed, young lady.’

‘Grandad will always be with us, Mum, won’t he?’ I say.

She runs a hand through my hair. ‘What do you mean, love?’

‘I mean, y’know, like he is when he helps me do my homework.’

‘He does what?’

Oh, no. I bite my lip. I’ve let our secret out.

I glance over at Grandad’s chair, wondering what to do. Then suddenly there’s a sweet smell of tobacco and, just for a second, I see him sitting there, bushy grey moustache lifting at the corners, eyes twinkling, and I know it’s all right for me to tell her.

‘Helps me,’ I blurt out. ‘Like he used to when you weren’t here otherwise his life wouldn’t be worth living. Only it was a secret but now it’s okay for me to tell you ’cause he just said so.’

Funny, but now Mum’s crying and laughing at the same time, and she’s kissing the top of my head and squeezing me so tight I can hardly breathe. But I don’t care. Not now that I’m her best friend again.