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Authors: Kate Long

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BOOK: Queen Mum
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‘Yeah it is, isn’t it?’ I said, wiping my eyes on her hanky. ‘Can I put a bag of oven chips in your freezer, by the way?’

The look on her face had made me laugh, for the first time in a month. It was still two days before I spoke to Tom, though.

Not that I am ever on my own with the nursery kids. But this is because I’m in charge of pre-schoolers and there are too many children for one carer, the legal ratio currently being one
adult to eight under-fives. I don’t know if any of my colleagues know about Joe. There’s a high staff turnover in this profession, lots of young girls coming and going, and two years
ago we had a new boss. I suppose it might be on my file that I lost a child, but no one ever mentions it. So, perversely, Meadowbank’s the one place where I hardly think about him. I’m
always too damn busy.

I’d been working alongside Bethany for a month, wondering how long she’d stick it. I didn’t dislike her, not at first. I thought she was funny with her impractical manicure and
her thick make-up. If there hadn’t been a uniform, she’d have been arriving in crop tops and hot pants. Nursery was just an interruption in her clubbing life. But she was cheerful and
smiley, not an ounce of sulk in her, and the children loved her. The girls used to queue up for her to do their hair and she did her best not to spike them in the eyes with her six-inch nails.

She was thrilled to hear about Juno’s TV experience.

‘God, I wish I could trade my mum in. Nag nag nag, like she’s got no other interest. I keep telling her to get out there, meet some men, but she’d rather stay home and whinge
about the length of my skirt. Does your mate have any say in who she wants to swap with?’

‘No. They get a few details in advance, that’s all.’ I picked up a foam ball that had come rolling to my feet. ‘It’s mostly a surprise.’

‘But what if they match her up with somebody weird? One of these insanely jealous types, a bunny boiler, or a right, you know, ess-ell-ay-gee. Isn’t she worried about leaving her
husband with a strange woman? I would be. If I was married, I mean.’

‘She says not. Their marriage is pretty strong. Plus they do these police checks, and I suppose there’s cameras round all the time. No one would be able to get up to anything
seriously nutty.’ I picked up Daisy Fuller, who was running a crayon up and down my trouser seam, and stood for a moment with her in my arms watching Bethany confidently slotting together
pieces of Tweenies jigsaw. ‘Let the kids have a go, Beth. It is Ryan’s puzzle.’

She giggled. ‘I get carried away.’

They’d taken her out of the baby room because she nearly let a six-month-old fall off the changing unit. ‘Keep an eye on her,’ Geraldine, my boss, had told me. ‘She
doesn’t mean any harm, but she doesn’t think.’

It was exactly six weeks after Juno’s party, and two days after Ben had left with the school for the Lakes, that I hurled a child’s plastic lunchbox at her head and cut her brow
open. Jesus, you could have blinded her, said Geraldine later. So? I nearly replied. It would have served her right.

I was on my morning break – only fifteen minutes, but you do need it in this job – and I’d slipped out to stand and look at the river while I drank my coffee. Lovely spring
day, nippy but sunny, some blossom starting to unfurl. I was imagining what Ben might be up to on his Adventure, but all I could picture was him falling into icy water or hurtling off the side of a
cliff. So I thought instead about how I must finally get someone in to service the boiler because the water wasn’t heating up enough, and then in a flick I was in the hallway of the other
house, Joe running round with only a T-shirt on, British Gas rep at the door, Joe telling him not to step on blue because that was sea. Then it was in the dining room at Cestrian Park, Joe bursting
in to let me and the decorator know that he’d made a giant snake on the floor, and it had turned out to be a two-metre stripe of toothpaste down the landing carpet. White footprints
everywhere. Everything in my head leads to Joe, eventually.

Bethany met me at the door. ‘There’s been a call for you.’

My heart jumped in fear. ‘Was it Ben’s school?’

‘It was, er . . . I wrote it down. They said it was quite urgent. I did look for you but you weren’t . . . ’

My blood was hammering already as I followed her to the office.

‘Here you go,’ she said cheerfully. ‘Mr Hannant. Said to ring him back as soon as possible, but not to worry.’ Mr Hannant, Ben’s new form tutor. So something was
wrong. ‘He said not to worry.’

‘They always say that!’ I snapped, grabbing the scrap of paper out of her hand and barging past her. ‘Oh
fuck
!’ The outside line was engaged. ‘Geraldine must
be – I can’t—’

Bethany looked shocked; I don’t suppose she’d heard me swear before. ‘Hang on, you can lend my mobile,’ she said, disappearing.

But then the line came free and I stabbed buttons, shaking. First of all I hit the wrong ones, then I dropped the receiver. On the third attempt I got it right.

The number you have dialled has not been recognized
, came the voice. I went cold with panic but I hung up and tried again.
The number—

‘Bethany!’ I yelled down the corridor. ‘Bethany!’

A door down the corridor opened and Mo from Little Toddlers put her head out.

I dialled Ben’s mobile number, even though I knew from the fact sheet we’d been given that the hostel was out of reception.
It has not been possible to connect you—

‘BETHANY!’ I screamed.

She came out of the toilets looking white.

‘You’ve taken the wrong number down!’

‘Oh, did I? I’m sure I wrote down what he said. I’ve got my phone, anyway.’ She was close now, holding out her hand with the tiny mobile in it. ‘Sorry, I just went
for a pee.’

It was then that I picked up the Lion King lunchbox and threw it at her face. It connected with her forehead and she let out a cry of surprise.

Mo darted out and pulled Beth into her room. I stood there trembling for a minute, then tried the number again.

I heard doors opening and quick footsteps, more doors, crying. Then Geraldine was in the office, cold and brisk.

‘Go home, Ally.’

‘It’s Ben,’ I said. ‘There’s been an accident and I can’t get through. He’s on an adventure holiday—’

‘Go home,’ she said. ‘Now.’

I ran to the car park, didn’t even stop for my coat. I’d have the number in the letter rack, on the information sheet the school had sent out. I just had to get home.

As I swung into the drive I could see Manny over the hedge getting into his Subaru. He gave me a wave but I ignored him. I flung open the car door and almost fell onto the gravel, scrambled up
and made for the door. Bloody key wouldn’t go in. I fumbled and stabbed at the keyhole, tears of temper spilling over. I wanted to kick the door down or beat it open with my fists.

‘Ally? Are you all right?’ It was Manny crunching up behind me. ‘Ally, for God’s sake, what’s the matter?’

I couldn’t answer him, so he took the keys off me, opened the door straight away and helped me in. I pushed him to one side and snatched up the letter rack, tipping it upside down onto the
table.

‘Is it something to do with Tom?’

I shook my head.

‘Ben?’

I managed a strangled noise.

‘Oh, right. Is he at school?’

But I’d found the sheet with the number on it and I didn’t want to speak to him, I just wanted Mr Hannant.

He picked up straight away. ‘Mrs Weaver?’ He let out a breath of relief. ‘You got my message. Nothing to worry about, Ben’s actually fine.’

‘Is he?’ My voice was quavering; Mr Hannant would know I was crying but I couldn’t stop myself.

‘Oh, yes, absolutely fine. Well, in the sense that he’s uninjured. Feeling rather sorry for himself, but then, that’s what happens when you drink too much.’

‘He got drunk?’

Beside me, Manny was watching, listening, his body taut. When I said ‘drunk’, I saw him relax slightly.

‘Very much so, I gather,’ Mr Hannant went on. ‘I don’t think the alcohol belonged to him, if that’s any consolation; actually, I don’t know if it is, because
I gather from what the other boys are saying that Ben helped himself to it from a class-mate’s bag. So they’re both in trouble. We did stress at the parents’ meeting beforehand
that alcoholic drinks were strictly banned, and that anyone caught with them would be sent home immediately.’ There was a pause. ‘So that’s really it in a nutshell. I need you to
come and collect him today if at all possible, and—’

‘So he’s not hurt?’

‘Hurt? No, not in the slightest. He’s been sick, but even that was, what, an hour ago, no, nearly two. And of course he’s got a headache. He didn’t have enormous amounts,
about a quarter of a bottle of whisky, but then he’s not used to it.’

My whole body wanted to give itself up to sobbing, but I held it together for another thirty seconds. ‘Can I speak to him?’

Mr Hannant gave a mirthless laugh. ‘He’s lying down at the moment. I should think by the time you get up here though, what’ll it be, early afternoon, he’ll be feeling
more himself.’

I put the receiver down and wept. Manny made a hot drink and then went out of the front door, where I heard him talking to someone.

‘Is Juno there?’ I asked when he came back.

‘No. She’s at the hospital with Mrs Beale. A scan or something. Do you want to phone Tom?’

‘I just want to get Ben back first.’ Manny looked surprised. ‘I’ll call him when Ben’s home safely.’

The Gallic shrug. ‘OK. We’d better get moving, then.’

I drew my sleeve across my face and frowned. ‘What?’

‘You’re in no fit state to drive, Ally, are you?’

‘I’ll be fine.’

‘You do want to get to Ben as soon as possible, don’t you?’

I nodded.

‘For a start you’re twitching around so much you probably won’t be able to find the gears. And, with respect, your teeny Daewoo isn’t built for high-speed dashes up the
motorway. You want something that’s going to eat up the tarmac.’ He turned to look out of the window.

‘Aren’t you needed at work or something?’

‘I’ve been sorting out a project from home all morning. On the skive, really. I’ve just rung in to say it’s taken longer than I expected, so they won’t see me till
tomorrow now.’ He came back to where I was sitting and stood over me. ‘Look, Ally, if you really don’t want me to come with you, that’s fine. But I still don’t think
you should drive alone. Let me give Tom a bell.’

I did a quick calculation in my head; how long it would take Tom to get out of work and drive back here for me, then up to the Lakes. Too long. I could have let him go alone, but no. I had to
see Ben for myself as soon as possible.

‘You drive.’

‘Sure? Right. Is there anything you need?’

‘No. Let’s go.’

For the first ten minutes or so he tried to chat; how did Ben like the school, what had he chosen for his options, but after that he didn’t talk to me, which is what I wanted. Instead he
played a Bach CD which I started off not minding but grew to hate. It became like an army of ants in my brain, running round and interfering with my thoughts. Over it all I could hear Joe’s
voice asking repeatedly, Does he get saved? which is what Joe always wanted to know the minute there was any on-screen conflict. No, the Dalmatians don’t get made into coats, the sharks
don’t eat Nemo’s dad.

The hostel was a slate barn in the middle of moorland. I couldn’t see any other houses around. Manny parked on broken-up tarmac, reversing, going forwards, reversing, till I wanted to
reach down and yank the handbrake on myself. I spotted Ben as I got out; he was peering from an upstairs window. He must have been watching out for me.

Mr Hannant, awkward in jeans rather than his suit, met me in the hall and said he wanted a chat before I went up. I ignored him. I never used to be so rude. I ran up the stairs just as Ben was
opening the dorm door. He stood, hanging his head, and I pulled him into me. He smelt of mints and sick.

‘Sorry, Mum,’ he muffled into my jumper. There was an untouched plate of toast on the bedside table and I remembered how, for a fortnight after Joe died, Ben had made Tom and me
breakfast every day; we used to have to bin it on the sly as neither of us could eat.

‘Are you all right?’ He moved away and we went into the room. ‘Bit pukey.’ He sank down on the end of a bed, and I went round and sat next to him.

‘Not hurt or anything?’

‘No. No; did Hannant tell you I was?’

‘He said you’d been very drunk. He said you’d stolen some whisky. Last night?’

‘Yeah. Are you really cross?’

I let a breath out slowly. ‘I need to know what happened, Ben.’

He turned his face away for a moment and I wondered if he was going to cry. ‘It wasn’t just about drinking, Mum. I mean, the thing about the whisky’s right—’

‘Did you steal it from home?’

‘No. God, Mum, check when you get back. Your booze cupboard’s intact.’

‘Mr Hannant said you’d taken it from another boy’s bag.’

Ben nodded. ‘Oh, yeah. That’s true. Felix’s sports bag’s like a portable cocktail cabinet. They’re supposed to have searched, but Felix just kept moving his stash
around. Anyway, he won’t mind. He said—’

‘Hang on.’

I could just make out voices from below.

‘Wait here a minute,’ I said, rising, and crept out to the top of the stairs.

‘You should have window locks, then,’ Manny was saying angrily. ‘These are teenagers. Of course they’re going to try it on. It’s your job to be one step ahead of
them.’

Mr Hannant’s voice was lower and placatory. Manny’s scary when his temper’s up. ‘But at fourteen we would expect them to be developing a sense of personal responsibility.
The students had been warned—’

‘What, and you expect them simply to do as they’re told? Get real. How long have you been a teacher? You and your staff are in loco parentis; that means you have to bear the
responsibility for this.’

‘I’m well aware what the phrase means,’ said Mr Hannant.

I came down the steps to where they were standing in the hall. Mr Hannant hadn’t moved from the spot where I’d left him.

BOOK: Queen Mum
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