This story is by Margaret Springett and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
For a moment I thought I was dreaming. Someone was whispering in my ear “Wake up! Wake up! “
Startled, I sat bolt upright in bed. “What…what the hell?” I glanced at the alarm clock. God, it’s only four in the morning. My bleary eyes tried to focus on the child standing by my bed.
“What the hell, Will! What are you doing in my bedroom in the middle of the bloody night?”
“ You shouldn’t say rude words and it isn’t the middle of the night.” Will said petulantly ,” I heard the birds singing.”
“ Really? You heard birds singing?”
“I did hear them, so there! Anyway, I want a story.”, He half turned away from me but I could see he’d been crying. Heaving an exasperated sigh, I wondered again what I was doing here, even though I already knew the answer – for the money, of course. I pushed back the covers and motioned the boy to get in. It might not be the done thing in this day and age, but if I was going to get any rest at all, this would have to do. He snuggled down beside me , then he started again. “James, tell me a story. One about lions, tigers and elephants…any big animals that… that aren’t.” His voice tailed off.
“Aren’t what, Will? Scary? Going to nibble your toes. Gobble you all up?”
He didn’t answer. I looked down at him and could see he had fallen asleep . I suppose some people might think he looked kind of cute with his tousled hair standing on end , pink nose and long eyelashes sweeping his cheek, I didn’t. Shrugging, I lay down beside him, hoping to fall asleep as quickly as he had done, but I couldn’t .Now I was wide awake, my mind whizzing around in circles. Why would Mum’s old friend offer me money to stay here? True, he knew I wanted the cash to travel. Canada, the States – all waiting to be ticked off my destination list. First though, I wanted the big one – Australia. Wide open spaces, kangaroos, surf, and sun bronzed women, I couldn’t wait. But , where on earth did the old man get the idea of leaving his grandson in the care of a twenty four year old man who could barely look after himself?
His exact words had been , “All you have to do is care for my grandson for a couple of weeks while I’m away. Both his parents are dead, there’s no one else available so I’m offering you free food and lodgings for a couple of weeks or so . There will be a big bonus when I return, of course. Deal?”
So you see, it was a no brainer. My mother also put her oar in, “ You might just enjoy it James ,and think of the money.” That did it for me, I always need money.
Thank goodness ,the kid was no trouble except when he woke me up early. Another perk was ‘Grandad’s drinks cabinet containing a couple of bottles of single malt whisky. A tumbler of whisky, slipped down a treat after a boring ,long day of doing nothing. I lay in bed watching in awe as the real dawn gradually broke, painting the sky with swathes of pinks, blues and gold. Something my mother often said when watching the sunrise, “God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world.” I think this is the first time I’d seen daybreak in all its glory since I left home. Usually, as I stumbled back in the early hours to whichever friend would let me sleep on their sofa , I was too drunk to notice anything let alone the sky . Usually, the earliest I ever got up was midday and even then it was just to find food or use the bathroom. Here, in the back of beyond, I was in bed before midnight. The boy moved restlessly, tossing about as if he was fighting demons. I squeezed his shoulder saying,
” Shush, Will, go back to sleep.”
I must have slept because by the time I woke up again, it was 8.30am and Will was gone. Dressing hurriedly, I went to his room, no luck there either. Where was the blasted boy?
“Will, where are you, for God’s sake.”I called out.
I heard a noise coming from the dining room and walked quietly towards it. I still couldn’t see him, then I heard the noise again. It sounded like a sob following by a sniffle . It came from beneath the massive, cloth covered table. Gingerly lifting the edge of the tablecloth, I peered underneath. Will sat there, naked, clasping his rather dirty knees to his chest. He looked like a bedraggled, featherless bird. His rib bones stuck out and by the look of his puffy, water drenched eyes he had been crying again.
I was stunned by the feeling of – it can’t be pity? I offered him my hand to help him climb out when to my surprise, his little hand fastened like a leech onto mine.
“What’s the matter, Will? Why didn’t you go back to your own bed?”
He mumbled something about being cold and wet, then it dawned on me; he had wet his bed.
“ Is that it, you’ve wet your bed? Forget it, you’ll soon grow out of it. I wet my bed when I was your age, and if I remember correctly, just a couple of months ago as well. Mind you, that was after much too much beer. Remember that when you grow up: stick to whisky.”
Will flung his scrawny arms around my neck and whispered “I have horrible nightmares when a vampire bat flies into my bedroom. I can hear it. It flaps about and one night I just know it will swoop down and bite me. A boy from the village said it will suck out all my blood. If it did, I would die – and then – then “ his bony chest heaved, “ I might have to live in Hell with Daddy . Grandad said that’s where he’s gone .” He began weeping again, huddling against me. I pushed him away roughly, I really couldn’t be doing with this. He clung on to me, crying out that if I told him a story with brave things in it, it would make him brave like the lion in the Wizard of Oz and he could frighten the bat away. I gave him an embarrassed shove. Thank God , my mates can’t see me with this kid, they’d never believe it.
“ Go on, have a shower, get dressed and I’ll take you out for a walk or something. I’ll think about a story later”.
I hoped taking out him out for a long walk would tire him out ; maybe then he would sleep better. It’s weird, but as we began to play about, I had fun, too.We found some horse chestnuts and I showed him how to play Conkers, though he hit my fingers more than he did the actual conker. Poor kid, I don’t think anyone has ever played games with him. After dinner I taught him to play Nine Card Brag. I know, I know, not the sort of thing you teach a child, but what the hell, I don’t know another card game. Reluctantly, he went to bed and I sat on the edge of it watching this lonely, rich kid shivering in his Winnie the Pooh pyjamas. It got me thinking , perhaps money doesn’t solve everything.
“ Tell me a story, please, ‘ he looked up at me with his blue eyes pleading , “ please , James.” Reluctantly I searched my memory for something suitable though why I was bothering I couldn’t fathom. So began our nights of storytelling. That night I told him of how the elephants used their trunks to catch the nasty bat as it flew past. They threw it onto the ground and stomped on it. Will laughed , jumped out of bed and began stomping around the bedroom saying he was a elephant.
The next night , his saviour was the ‘ Golden Knight’, who with his trusty magic sword vanquished the evil creature before he could swoop down. Will charged round the room waving his imaginary sword shouting gleefully “ Take that and that.” That night he slept through until morning.
The following night, exhausted after all our exertions during the day, I fell asleep on his bed . I was awoken by something flapping near my head.
“The bat, the bat. Get it away , it’s going to bite me.”
Will squeezed my shoulder, just as I had done to him, smiled before giving me a hug.
“No, it won’t, James . It’s only the old curtains blowing in the wind because you left the big window open. Don’t worry, you’re safe with me. Words 1499