A Monster Calls (Page 13)

His grandma wouldn’t be here when his father arrived. Which suited everyone.

“Pick up your rucksack from the front hall, please,” she said, stepping past him and grabbing her handbag. “No need for him to think I’m keeping you in a pigsty.”

“Not much chance of that,” Conor muttered as she went to the hall mirror to check her lipstick.

His grandma’s house was cleaner than his mum’s hospital room. Her cleaning lady, Marta, came on Wednesdays, but Conor didn’t see why she bothered. His grandma would get up first thing in the morning to hoover, did laundry four times a week, and once cleaned the bath at midnight before going to bed. She wouldn’t let dinner dishes touch the sink on their way to the dishwasher, once even taking a plate Conor was still eating from.

“A woman my age, living alone,” she said, at least once a day, “if I don’t keep on top of things, who will?”

She said it like a challenge, as if defying Conor to answer.

She drove him to school, and he got there early every single day, even though it was a forty-five minute drive. She was also waiting for him every day after school when he left, taking them both straight to the hospital to see his mum. They’d stay for an hour or so, less if his mum was too tired to talk – which had happened twice out of the previous five days – and then go home to his grandma’s house, where she’d make him do his homework while she ordered whatever take-away they hadn’t already eaten so far.

It was like the time Conor and his mum had stayed in a bed and breakfast one summer in Cornwall. Except cleaner. And bossier.

“Now, Conor,” she said, slipping on her suit jacket. It was a Sunday but she didn’t have any houses to show, so he wasn’t sure why she was dressing up so much just to go to the hospital. He suspected it probably had something to do with making his dad uncomfortable.

“Your father may not notice how tired your mum’s been getting, okay?” she said. “So we’re going to have to work together to make sure he doesn’t overstay his welcome.” She checked herself in the mirror again and lowered her voice. “Not that that’s been a problem.”

She turned, gave him a flash of starfish hand as a wave, and said, “Be good.”

The door clattered shut behind her. Conor was alone in her house.

He went up to the guest room where he slept. His grandma kept calling it his room, but he only ever called it the guest room, which always made his grandmother shake her head and mumble to herself.

But what did she expect? It didn’t look like his room. It didn’t look like anybody’s room, certainly not a boy’s. The walls were bare white except for three different prints of sailing ships, which was probably as far as his grandma’s thinking went towards what boys might like. The sheets and duvet covers were a bright, blinding white, too, and the only other piece of furniture was an oak cabinet big enough to have lunch in.

It could have been any room in any home on any planet anywhere. He didn’t even like being in it, not even to get away from his grandma. He’d only come up now to get a book since his grandma had forbidden hand-held computer games from her house. He fished one out of his bag and made to leave, glancing out of the window to the back garden as he went.

Still just stone paths and sheds and the office.

Nothing looking back at him at all.

The sitting room was one of those sitting rooms where no one ever actually sat. Conor wasn’t allowed in there at any time, lest he smudge the upholstery somehow, so of course this was where he went to read his book while he waited for his father.

He slumped down on her settee, which had curved wooden legs so thin it looked like it was wearing high heels. There was a glass-fronted cabinet opposite, filled with plates on display stands and teacups with so many curlicues it was a wonder you could drink from them without cutting your lips. Hanging over the mantelpiece was his grandma’s prize clock, which no one but her could ever touch. Handed down from her own mother, Conor’s grandma had threatened for years to take it on Antiques Roadshow to get it valued. It had a proper pendulum swinging underneath it, and it chimed, too, every fifteen minutes, loud enough to make you jump if you weren’t expecting it.

The whole room was like a museum of how people lived in olden times. There wasn’t even a television. That was in the kitchen and almost never switched on.

He read. What else was there to do?

He had hoped to talk to his father before he flew out, but what with the hospital visits and the time difference and the new wife’s convenient migraines, he was just going to have to see him when he showed up.

Whenever that would be. Conor looked at the pendulum clock. Twelve forty-two, it said. It would chime in three minutes.

Three empty, quiet minutes.

He realized he was actually nervous. It had been a long time since he’d seen his father in person and not just on Skype. Would he look different? Would Conor look different?

And then there were the other questions. Why was he coming now? His mum didn’t look great, looked even worse after five days in hospital, but she was still hopeful about the new medicine she was being given. Christmas was still months away and Conor’s birthday was already past. So why now?

He looked at the floor, the centre of which was covered in a very expensive, very old-looking oval rug. He reached down and lifted up an edge of it, looking at the polished boards beneath. There was a knot in one of them. He ran his fingers over it, but the board was so old and smooth, you couldn’t tell the difference between the knot and the rest of it.

“Are you in there?” Conor whispered.

He jumped as the doorbell went. He scrambled up and out of the sitting room, feeling more excited than he’d thought he would. He opened the front door.

There was his father, looking totally different but exactly the same.

“Hey, son,” his dad said, his voice bending in that weird way that America had started to shape it.

Conor smiled wider than he had for at least a year.

CHAMP

“How you hanging in there, champ?” his father asked him while they waited for the waitress to bring them their pizzas.

“Champ?” Conor asked, raising a sceptical eyebrow.

“Sorry,” his father said, smiling bashfully. “America is almost a whole different language.”

“Your voice sounds funnier every time I talk to you.”

“Yeah, well.” His father fidgeted with his wine glass. “It’s good to see you.”