My latest short story, Swing Me, has been published in Storgy Magazine as a Finalist in their Halloween Short Story Competition. It’s the story of a newly divorced mother who becomes interested in the father of her little girl’s new best friend – but is he all he appears to be?
It was the first week back after half term when she first noticed the little boy. The morning had been a stressed jumble of activity: working Bea’s reluctant hands into her pink mittens, an argument over shoes (Bea wanted to wear her Dalmatian spotted wellies, and got her way eventually), the fifteen-minute walk to school which seemed to take an age when you were in a hurry, with a tricky crossing on the main road just before you reached the school gate. Bea was still not sure about ‘big school’, she’d loved her cosy nursery before the divorce, now Jem worried that Bea might never adjust and a tiny, mean part of her wanted to rush her daughter through this whole process, force her to acclimatise faster so she could get a little bit of her own life back. The morning had been jerky and snappy and she felt bad. She’d rushed Bea because she wanted to concentrate on her writing, an article for one of the women’s mags on ‘Suddenly single.’ Now she’d got it in on time, she would be calm and relaxed, the way she wanted to be as a mother, the way she aspired to behave.
The boy was hanging around in the freezing playground, wearing a blue jacket and jeans. He didn’t look to her, at a quick glance, as though he was warmly enough dressed: the anorak was thin. The teaching assistant who usually handled pickups was not paying him any attention: she gave Jem a brisk smile and handed Bea over to her mum.
‘She had a great day today, did a nice painting didn’t you love?’
Bea gave Jem a hug, all smiles, the morning’s tension completely forgotten. As usual Jem felt a helpless rush of love for Bea, in her pink tights and blue cord dress, her spotted boots, one blonde pigtail askew.
‘He’s my friend’, said Bea, and pointed over to the little boy.
‘Is he?’ said Jem, and looked over.
‘His name’s Elliot.’
‘Which one’s his mum?’
She pointed to the gaggle of parents at the gate. Now they were in a new area, in a new school, Jem desperately wanted to make a few friends, both for Bea and for herself. They were out of the centre of town now, and it took a long time to see her old friends. Bea was bored, restless, missed her dad when she didn’t see him and then became over-excited when she did.
‘He doesn’t have a mum, he has a dad.’
Maybe one of the new exotic breed of house-husband, then? Or self-employed? You still didn’t see that many dads doing the school run, not out here in the suburbs, even though it was 2016.
‘His mum isn’t there any more.’
‘Where is she?’
‘Elliot says she’s in heaven, but my Daddy says there’s no such place.’
Jem felt the familiar twist of fury. Why did he always have to be so bloody pedantic? What was wrong with leaving a small child with a few comforting illusions? Like the one that she had a daddy who wasn’t a cheating bastard, for example. The great philosopher. He made her sick.
Bea waved at Elliot, and after a moment’s hesitation, he waved back. He had a beautiful smile.
Jem took Bea’s hand, and they walked out of the school gate. When Jem looked back, he was still watching them.
It was a couple of weeks later when she met Elliot’s dad. She was even more scruffily dressed than usual, a pair of beaten up trainers, leggings and an anorak – the privilege of the home worker. Bea ran happily into the playground and Elliot ran up to her. She noticed a man standing by the gate waving at him.
‘See you later!’
He was tall and good looking. Jem’s eyes flicked automatically to his hand – no ring. Not that that meant much these days, but you never know. He smiled at her as their children went into the school, hand in hand.
‘Our two seem to get on well.’
‘Yes, she talks about Elliot a lot.’
‘It’s a relief to me, as he’s quite shy.’
‘Bea’s pretty confident once she finds her feet, but it’s been a new start for her at this school.’
‘How’s she settling in?’
‘Well, with Elliot’s help quite well I think now. I haven’t met many of the other parents myself yet, it’s all been a bit of a whirlwind.’
They were still standing at the gate. Surreptitiously, she admired the muscle definition on his arms, he was only wearing a T shirt despite the cold.
‘They can be a little cliquey.’
She shivered. ‘I’d better get back before I freeze. Great meeting you. I’m Jem, by the way. Short for Jemima, like Jemima Puddleduck.’
Christ, she was gabbling. This gorgeous man would think she was a lunatic.
‘Carl. Great to meet you.’
A couple of days later she was in the park, having a break before she finished writing her piece when she spotted both Carl and Elliot in the smaller playground. The little boy was sitting on the roundabout, looking disconsolate. His eyes were red-rimmed. Carl was sitting on a memorial park bench, looking on.
‘Hello there! No school today?’ she called across.
She wished she hadn’t said it immediately – it sounded rather interfering, presumably Elliot wasn’t well. But Carl didn’t seem to mind, his expression lifted when he saw her.
‘He’s having a day off.’ He stood up, walked over to her and lowered his voice slightly. ‘I lost my wife to cancer, two years ago. The anniversary date’s rough and I like us to spend the day together. As you can see, he doesn’t always enjoy it that much.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s getting easier, but we both miss her so much. It seems so strange for us not to be a family any more, you know.’
‘Of course.’ She felt awkward. ‘Well, I should be getting back.’
‘Are you going to the High Street? We’ll walk with you. Fancy heading to the High street, Elliot?’
Carl walked alongside her as she turned ago and as the little boy caught up with them he grabbed both of their hands.
His father laughed. ‘That’s his favourite game.’
She gave his hands a rub to warm them up.
‘No gloves today?’
‘Please swing me!’
They played the game all the way to the High Street, walking three steps and then swinging Elliot up into the air with a shout. It felt strangely intimate, hanging out with them and chatting like this, and she wondered if Carl felt the same way. When they said goodbye, there was an awkward moment when she considered a kiss on the cheek, and then he patted her arm. ‘See you at the school gate, then.’
The teacher, a young woman called Maria, called her aside later in the week as she was picking up Bea – ‘Can I have a quick word?’
Jem was a little distracted, looking around for Carl and Elliot, but they were nowhere to be seen.
‘Let’s go in so we can chat. Bea, do you want to choose a book from the reading corner?’ asked Maria.
Obediently the little girl trotted off to choose a book. The teacher lowered her voice as they sat down on the tiny chairs.
‘I’ve been a bit concerned about how well Bea is settling in.’
‘Oh? But she seems so happy, and she’s enjoying her schoolwork.’
‘I don’t really have any concerns about her school work. Her reading age is quite advanced, and she seems to be progressing well with her maths too. I’m actually a bit more concerned about her behaviour. She seems to prefer to be by herself, and she won’t interact with the other children generally during free play sessions. For example, she won’t share any toys. It’s always no, no, Elliot and I are playing with it. Does she talk about Elliot at home as well?’
‘Yes, all the time, of course, but he is her friend.’
‘Does she play with him at all at home?’
‘Well, no of course not, she only sees him at school! But he’s a friend, isn’t he? Surely if she’s got one friend at least, that’s enough?’
Maria looked confused.
‘I know imaginary friends are quite common at this age, especially if you’re an only child, but she seems a little – well – obsessed with Elliot. It’s so consistent. I start to think I’m seeing him myself! I was wondering if everything was alright at home? If she’d had an upset recently?’
‘I don’t understand. Isn’t Elliot in this class?’
‘No, we don’t have an Elliot in reception. Is it possible you’ve misunderstood? She does talk about him as if he’s a real child, I know.’
‘But I’ve seen him! Is he in a different year, perhaps? Blonde curly hair, wears jeans and a blue jacket. Trainers with lights on them. His dad’s tall, named Carl. A widower.’
Jem saw, to her consternation, tears well in the teacher’s eyes.
‘We did have an Elliot in my class last year who looked like that, whose dad was called Carl.’
‘So he’s in the year above! That makes sense, they’ve obviously met in the playground..’
‘I don’t think you quite understand, Mrs Medway. He died, poor little Elliot died, his father too. It was awful. A real tragedy.’
‘They died in a car crash, outside the school gates. A car was travelling too fast and it hit them – they didn’t have a chance. That’s why the council introduced traffic calming measures, cars still use this road as a rat run though. It’s a disgrace.’
‘You’re not serious.’
‘I wouldn’t joke about something like this. It’s why I was a little disturbed when her imaginary friend was called Elliot. Perhaps you read an article about him, and that’s why you thought you knew what he looked like? Or you both saw their memorial bench in the park, and that made her choose the name?’
The memorial bench – Jem remembered Carl sitting there while Elliot sat on the roundabout, trailing the toe of one trainer on the ground.
The discussion with Maria petered out in mutual confusion, Jem promising to keep an eye on Bea and discuss it again. She was flustered, still thinking about the conversation, holding Bea’s bag and lunch box in one hand and Bea’s hand in the other, when they passed the school gates. Bea suddenly tugged her hand away from her mother’s.
Bea darted off the pavement into the big main road, Jem could see a car coming the other way. She had only a split second to act and ran into the road.
There was a screech of brakes and a crunch of broken metal.
When Jem opened her eyes there was no pain, but almost immediately she was flooded with panic as she looked around for Bea. Where was she? She saw a tiny Dalmatian patterned wellington boot lying next to the car, which had obviously swerved too late and hit the central island. She looked again and saw Bea who was cradled in Maria’s arms, howling with shock and fear, Maria was trying to soothe her, tears pouring down her cheeks. Paramedics were standing over someone in the road, maybe it was the driver. Thank God, Bea was alive. She cried out with relief and was about to cross the road to her when a hand took hold of hers. It felt warm now. She looked down to see Elliot’s beautiful smile.
‘I’m so sorry, you can’t go to her. But we’ll stay with you.’ Carl came up to stand next to him. His eyes, so sad, suddenly told her everything she needed to know. She looked again to see the face of the woman the paramedics had tried to help. It was her own.
‘Swing me?’ asked Elliot.
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