A Monster Calls (Page 12)

“She’s got medicine for her pain–” Conor started, but his grandmother clapped her hands together, just the once, but loud, loud enough to stop him.

“It’s not working, Conor,” she said, crisply, and it seemed like she was looking just over his head rather than at him. “It’s not working.”

“What’s not working?”

His grandma tapped her hands together lightly a few more times, like she was testing them out or something, then she looked out of the window again, all the while keeping her mouth firmly shut. She finally stood, concentrating on smoothing down her dress.

“Your mum’s upstairs,” she said. “She wants to talk to you.”

“But–”

“Your father’s flying in on Sunday.”

He straightened up. “Dad’s coming?”

“I’ve got some calls to make,” she said, stepping past him and out of the front door, taking out her mobile.

“Why is Dad coming?” he called after her.

“Your mum’s waiting,” she said, pulling the front door shut behind her.

Conor hadn’t even had a chance to put down his rucksack.

His father was coming. His father. From America. Who hadn’t come since the Christmas before last. Whose new wife always seemed to suffer emergencies at the last minute that kept him from visiting more often, especially now that the baby was born. His father, who Conor had grown used to not having around as the trips grew less frequent and the phone calls got further and further apart.

His father was coming.

Why?

“Conor?” he heard his mum call.

She wasn’t in her room. She was in his, lying back on his bed on top of the duvet, gazing out of the window to the churchyard up the hill.

And the yew tree.

Which was just a yew tree.

“Hey, darling,” she said, smiling at him from where she lay, but he could tell by the lines around her eyes that she really was hurting, hurting like he’d only seen her hurt once before. She’d had to go into hospital then as well and hadn’t come out for nearly a fortnight. It had been last Easter, and the weeks at his grandma’s had almost been the death of them both.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Why are you going back to hospital?”

She patted the duvet next to her to get him to come and sit down.

He stayed where he was. “What’s wrong?”

She still smiled but it was tighter now, and she traced her fingers along the threaded pattern of the duvet, grizzly bears that Conor had outgrown years ago. She had tied her red rose scarf around her head, but only loosely, and he could see her pale scalp underneath. He didn’t think she’d even pretended to try on any of his grandma’s old wigs.

“I’m going to be okay,” she said. “I really am.”

“Are you?” he asked.

“We’ve been here before, Conor,” she said. “So don’t worry. I’ve felt really bad and I’ve gone in and they’ve taken care of it. That’s what’ll happen this time.” She patted the duvet cover again. “Won’t you come and sit down next to your tired old mum?”

Conor swallowed, but her smile was brighter and – he could tell – it was a real one. He went over and sat next to her on the side facing the window. She ran her hand through his hair, lifting it out of his eyes, and he could see how skinny her arm was, almost like it was just bone and skin.

“Why is Dad coming?” he asked.

His mother paused, then put her hand back down into her lap. “It’s been a while since you’ve seen him. Aren’t you excited?”

“Grandma doesn’t seem too happy.”

His mother snorted. “Well, you know how she feels about your dad. Don’t listen to her. Enjoy his visit.”

They sat in silence for a moment. “There’s something else,” Conor finally said. “Isn’t there?”

He felt his mother sit up a little straighter on her pillow. “Look at me, son,” she said, gently.

He turned his head to look at her, though he would have paid a million pounds not to have to do it.

“This latest treatment’s not doing what it’s supposed to,” she said. “All that means is they’re going to have to adjust it, try something else.”

“Is that it?” Conor asked.

She nodded. “That’s it. There’s lots more they can do. It’s normal. Don’t worry.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Because,” and here Conor stopped for a second and looked down at the floor. “Because you could tell me, you know.”

And then he felt her arms around him, her thin, thin arms that used to be so soft when she hugged him. She didn’t say anything, just held onto him. He went back to looking out of the window and after a moment, his mother turned to look, too.

“That’s a yew tree, you know,” she finally said.

Conor rolled his eyes, but not in a bad way. “Yes, Mum, you’ve told me a hundred times.”

“Keep an eye on it for me while I’m away, will you?” she said. “Make sure it’s still here when I get back?”

And Conor knew this was her way of telling him she was coming back, so all he did was nod and they both kept looking out at the tree.

Which stayed a tree, no matter how long they looked.

GRANDMA’S HOUSE

Five days. The monster hadn’t come for five days.

Maybe it didn’t know where his grandma lived. Or maybe it was just too far to come. She didn’t have much of a garden anyway, even though her house was way bigger than Conor and his mum’s. She’d crammed her back garden with sheds and a stone pond and a wood-panelled “office” she’d had installed across the back half, where she did most of her estate agent work, a job so boring Conor never listened past the first sentence of her description of it. Everything else was just brick paths and flowers in pots. No room for a tree at all. It didn’t even have grass.

“Don’t stand there gawping, young man,” his grandma said, leaning out of the back door and hooking in an earring. “Your dad’ll be here soon, and I’m going to see your mum.”

“I wasn’t gawping,” Conor said.

“What’s that got to do with the price of milk? Come inside.”

She vanished into the house, and he slowly trudged after her. It was Sunday, the day his father would be arriving from the airport. He would come here and pick up Conor, they’d go and see his mum, and then they’d spend some “father–son” time together. Conor was almost certain this was code for another round of We Need To Have A Talk.