“So, Nan, you’re really saying that it never goes off? Never?”
“As good as never, yes.”
“But what if – what about a thousand years? Would it go off then?”
“A thousand – well, a thousand, – I don’t know sweets, but it wouldn’t matter by then.”
“So it would go off? After a thousand?”
“I don’t know, sweets, perhaps.”
“Well then, it’s not true, is it? It does go off.”
“Maybe, sweets. Eat your toast now.”
I was in trouble if jam went off. I’d built a tower of spaghetti, spaghetti and jam. And if jam goes off, then it’d just be a pile of spaghetti.
I’d had to eat a lot of spaghetti recently. Even some of the really gloopy stuff, that falls out of the tin in a solid blob, like a mini orange octopus with sauce tangled up in its tentacles. It’s Emily’s favourite, the blob stuff. I don’t know why, but I do know I like Emily, so I don’t say anything.
Nan’s been buying the spaghetti and making it for Emily at our house. I don’t mind, because Nan makes me a jam sandwich instead and later I dry Emily’s leftover spaghetti with Nan’s hairdryer, and using little fruity dots of sugar-glue, I build it into towers and bridges and castles as tall as the sky.
“C’mon sweets, finish your toast up, Emily’s dad will be here soon.”
Emily’s dad comes to ours every evening, normally just after Nan has fed us, and takes Emily home. Apart from Fridays, when her mum comes. I don’t like it when she goes home. At school I can’t show that I like Emily because of Ben and Max. Ben and Max think that girls aren’t cool because when we play rounders, the girls throw really badly, bending their elbows all wrong. It looks like they’re pretending to be dinosaurs. T-Rex’s with ponytails. Max and Ben wouldn’t like me if they knew that I like Emily and eat jam sandwiches every evening with her. Well, she’s eating spaghetti, but I guess it wouldn’t make a difference.
I heard the sound of Emily’s dad’s car before everyone else. I’ve always had super sharp hearing. I can even hear the ‘silent’ whiney machine that Nan puts in the front garden to stop the foxes coming and pooing on the lawn.
I heard Emily’s dad’s car so I asked Emily to come and look at the foxes’ den at the back of the garden with me. I knew then that we’d get at least an extra ten minutes because Nan would have to come and fetch us and it always takes her ages to walk all the way down to the back of the garden. She uses her silly stick, which she says helps her but it doesn’t seem to make her any faster, and it’s obviously stupid because she has to move three legs rather than two. It would make anyone slower. She loves the stick though, and gets really wobbly and upset if I try and take it away to show her that it’s a lot faster just on two legs.
But my plan didn’t work. Nan sussed it out in that way she does when she looks at me for longer than normal and then she says that I wrote it on my face that I’m up to something. I don’t understand why that always happens. My face isn’t like Nan’s face. Her face always agrees exactly with what she’s saying. Apart from when she’s talking to the doctor who comes round sometimes and asks her if she’s stopped eating the really buttery biscuits with the crunchy sugar sprinkled on top. She keeps them in a tin in the same drawer as the TV remote, so she has to eat one every time she watches TV. When the doctor asks her that, her face says no but she says yes.
The doorbell rung. Emily looked up and smiled a little. I don’t know why she smiled, when her dad clearly isn’t that nice a dad, because he never fetches her from school. Nan says that doesn’t mean he isn’t nice, he’s just busy. But when I’m a dad, I’m going to be nice, not busy.
Nan went into the hall and I heard her talking with Emily’s dad. Sometimes Emily’s dad has a really bad cold, his face is puffy and his nose runs. When he’s like that he talks to Nan for a really long time in the hall and it means Emily and I can play for longer. He must have been really ill this time, because Nan was in the hall for ages.
Emily and I were playing with snails under the table when Nan called us. Emily picked her snail up and went into to the hall. I followed.
“Emily love, your daddy’s here”.
“Hey Ems. Good tea?”
“I had spaghetti. Johnny had a jam sandwich.”
“A jam sandwich! You two. C’mon then, get your stuff together.”
I held really tight onto Emily’s hand, the one that didn’t have her snail in it. It was my favourite snail, the one with a green and purple spirally shell. It looked like the inside of a cave I’d seen in a James Bond movie one night when Nan had let me stay up late and watch grown-up films with her. Sometimes I put the snail down next to the lamps in the drawing room and twiddle it round and the light shines off it like it did on the roof of the cave in the film.
“Sweets, let go of Emily. She’s gotta go home now.”
I don’t think I meant to shout, but I guess I spoke a little loudly. Nan gobbled like a turkey, Emily’s dad fiddled with his car keys and looked at the stain on his tie, Emily giggled. So I giggled too. Nan stopped gobbling and told me to be quiet right this instant or I wouldn’t get a jam sandwich tomorrow. I let go of Emily.
“Bye Johnny. See you at school.”
I ran into the larder and shoved my fist to the back of the shelf where the goodies are kept. I pulled out a jammy dodger and gave it to Emily.
Then they left. I had forgotten to tell her that the jammy dodger was for the snail.
The next day was Friday. There had been chocolate bourbons at break time, but Nan was late to pick us up. Emily and I play tag outside the school gates when Nan’s late. Emily and I don’t mind at all. Mrs Gerry says it’s fine as long as we don’t go onto the road. I sometimes think that Mrs Gerry should be friends with Nan, or maybe pen pals. I think they’d be good friends because she wears the same see-through tights that Nan does, and their sticks could be friends too.
We got tired of tag, so I told Emily about the squirrel I’d seen in the playground at break. I called him Simon because he reminded me of Simon who sits three to the right and one in front of me in maths. Simon always has a bag of snacks his mum gives him every day that he eats between equations. Emily’s nice to Simon but Ben and Max say he’s weird because he eats nuts and dried apricots. They eat Penguins and Pringles.
It was a Friday, so that meant that after tea Emily’s mum would come, not her dad. Emily’s mum is sometimes ill too. When she isn’t ill, she’s angry. I don’t mind because she never seems to be angry with Emily, she’s always buying her presents, and she wouldn’t do that if she were angry with her. But this time, it was Nan who gave Emily’s mum a present.
Emily’s mum had arrived looking really bad, she must have been really ill. I think Emily’s parents should get a new doctor, or wash their hands more. Nan says that food can fix anything, so she wobbled off into the hallway cupboard. I’m pretty sure Nan has a whole other house in the hallway cupboard. A house made out of cupboards and fridges. She once came out of the hallway cupboard with one of those chewy jelly snakes that are as long as my lower arm, longer than Emily’s. You can only get them from Mr Foster’s shop; he has whole buckets of them wriggling in front of his till, next to a box of giant strawberries, which we get if I only have five pence, not ten. So I think the hallway cupboard connects to Mr Foster’s as well.
Nan reappeared with a funny-shaped red box in her hands just as the doorbell went. It was Emily’s dad. I didn’t know why he was here on a Friday. Emily’s mum didn’t know either. She stood in the hallway staring at him with her mouth open. Then she turned a funny colour and started making really loud noises so I took Emily by the hand and led her to my train track in the drawing room. I hoped the noise of the trains would be louder than her mum’s noises.
They weren’t though. We could still hear Emily’s mum and dad, who were both making really loud noises now. I was worried that Emily was going to break the trains, because her tears were falling onto the tracks. I offered to go and get her a tissue. When I went back into the hallway to get the tissue, both of Emily’s parents went silent.
“What you doing, Johnny?”
“Getting Emily a tissue.”
After I said that, both of their faces looked like dogs’ faces do when they’ve been told off for barking too loudly or getting muddy paw prints on the carpet. If Emily’s parents were dogs her mum would be a golden retriever because her hair and clothes always look really soft. But her hair hasn’t looked so good recently, so maybe she’d actually be a labrador. Emily’s dad would have been a labrador, but he’s more of a spaniel now because since he started picking Emily up his hair is curly and hangs in his face, and his shirt always has wrinkly lines all over it. Then Emily’s dad spoke.
Emily’s dad’s words stopped being words and turned into long breaths. He sat down on the chair next to the grandfather clock. I didn’t want to say it but Emily’s mum was right, I’d never seen Emily’s dad on a Friday. But I didn’t say it so there was a funny silence. It wasn’t a nice silence like the silence between Nan and me when we’re making jam. That silence is cosy, and it isn’t really silence because you can hear the tinkle of the sugar bits as Nan stirs them round the pan. But we weren’t making jam, we were in the hallway with Emily’s parents, and Nan still had the funny red box in her hands. I didn’t think any of them would ever break the silence, so I walked back to the train track with the tissue. Emily had stopped playing with the trains but she was still dropping tears. I was glad that the trains weren’t in danger any more, but I didn’t like that there were still tears. I gave her the tissue. I liked that I could do that.
I was telling Emily which trains were the fastest and which were the slowest when Nan called us back into the hallway. Nan wasn’t holding the funny red box any longer, Emily’s mum was, and Emily’s dad had gone. I hadn’t heard the door shut. I guess the trains were louder than I thought.
“Cmon, Ems. Johnny’s Nan gave us a cake, isn’t that nice? You can have some when we get home.”
Emily’s mum showed her the box. I don’t think Emily likes cake because she wasn’t that interested. Nan put her hand on my shoulder and Emily waved goodbye to me as she walked out the door with her mum.
On Monday evening Emily’s dad didn’t come in, he just beeped on the horn of his car. Nan always tells me to behave like a gentleman, so I walked down the path with her because it was the best I could do without a top hat. Her dad’s car was different to the one he normally has. That one had four doors and a boot, and a rug on the back seat for their dog, Bernie. This one only had two doors and a boot, and the roof was made out of material that I knew meant it could fold up like a rug. It looked a bit like the car the bad guy in James Bond drove. Emily looked at the new car, then got in. Her shoes left a little mark when they brushed against the inside of the door. They drove off and I went back inside to Nan.
“Nan, what’s happened to Bernie?”
“Nothing sweets, I saw him with Em’s mum this morning.”
“There’s no rug for him in Emily’s dad’s new car.”
I felt really bad that Bernie didn’t have a rug. Emily’s dad’s car was too cream and shiny inside for him to not mind if Bernie went on the seats. So he must have forgotten to get a rug for Bernie. I didn’t want Bernie to find out he’d been forgotten so I went upstairs and pulled one of my towels off the rail. It wasn’t as fluffy as it used to be so I didn’t mind giving it to Bernie.
The next morning I saw Emily and her dad outside school as Nan dropped me off. I left Nan and ran across to them with my towel.
“Here, Mr Richards. It’s a towel, for Bernie.”
I stuck my hand out and offered him the towel.
“So he can go in your new car. You don’t have a rug for him.”
My arm was starting to hurt. He still hadn’t taken the towel.
“Oh, oh. That’s alright, Johnny, don’t worry, thanks though – you keep that, your towel, you know… Oh, Christ … Jesus, kids … I …”
Mr Richards carried on praying just as Nan and her stick caught up with me. Mr Richards must have been allergic to the fluff on my towel because his eyes started to go red and his nose began to run. I didn’t want to be rude but I also didn’t want to get sick too, so I was glad when Emily took my hand and lead me into the playground. I hoped Ben and Max hadn’t arrived yet and didn’t see.