I walked up the garden path, stepping over the bits of broken glass on the ground. Like them, I felt shattered. But I realised I wasn’t scared. When the thing you fear most happens, you can actually be quite brave. The worst was over now. She was safe. We were safe. That’s all that mattered. I could hear the sirens in the background, fading out into the crisp October air.
My social worker, Mel, put my bag in the boot of her car and turned to Grandma Coalman. ‘Are you sure you’re going to be OK, Anna?’ she asked.
‘I’ll be fine!’ Grandma Coalman answered in her too-high voice, which meant that she really wasn’t fine at all. ‘I would just like the girls to stay with me, that’s all. I don’t see what the problem is.’
‘Anna, we’ve been over this,’ said Mel. ‘If it was my choice, of course I would let them stay with you. But it’s not my choice. We have to stick to the rules, and the rules say that three people can’t stay in a bungalow with just one bedroom.’
‘Balls to the rules!’ Grandma Coalman stamped her foot and tears started to roll down her face. ‘They are my grandchildren! If their mother isn’t going to be here, then I should be. If my son was alive, this wouldn’t be happening. He was their father and he would never allow it.’
Mel put her arm around her, and for a second Grandma Coalman submitted to the comfort. ‘I just feel so helpless.’
‘I know,’ Mel consoled. ‘But I swear to you, Anna, I will make sure the girls are looked after. And I will bring them to see you every week, without fail. Just give them a couple of days to settle in, and then I’ll get them to ring you, OK?’
Grandma Coalman nodded her head sadly.
I looked across at my little sister, Freya. Her foster family were helping to get her bags in their car, ready for the move. I knew that she would be OK because she’d been visiting Bill and Nora’s house for a long time now –
it was like a second home to her. She’d been there every month since my dad died. And she had Lola – Bill and Nora’s foster-daughter – to play with while she was there.
I was too old to go with her, apparently. Respite was mainly for the little ones, Mel said. And besides, they only had enough room for two kids. I understood, but I wished they’d had room for me too.
‘Em!’ Freya ran to me, excited. ‘Bill and Nora said that I can Skype you tomorrow! So it will be like we’re in the same room!’
‘Cool!’ I did my best fake smile.
‘How long will we be away from each other this time?’ asked Freya. ‘Will it be like a holiday again or will it be longer?’
‘I think it’s going to be a bit longer this time, Freya,’ I replied. ‘But that’s OK, isn’t it? It will give us a chance to get the house all fixed up for us to move back in again. Like new.’
‘Yeah, I s’pose.’ Freya looked at the mess around us. ‘What happened, Em? You can tell me. I’m not a baby, you know!’
‘I know that! You’re almost as tall as me!’ I measured her against me as I shrunk myself to be as short as I could get. She stood on tippy toes to reach my height.
‘Well, tell me what happened then.’
‘Oi!’ Grandma Coalman saved me from the interrogation. ‘I told you what happened, Missy!’
Freya laughed out loud. ‘Gram! That story isn’t true.’
‘It is!’ Grandma Coalman protested. ‘Ask Bill and Nora. They’ll tell you.’
Freya looked over to Bill and Nora, and they both nodded in solidarity with Grandma Coalman. Then she looked at Mel, who also nodded. Finally, she looked at me. I dutifully nodded to show that I too believed the story.
Even though I knew it wasn’t right.
Freya turned to Lola. ‘Lola, do you want to know happened to my house?’ she asked.
‘What?’ Lola looked wide-eyed at Freya, waiting for the revelation.
‘Grandma Coalman says that a lion escaped from the zoo!’ Freya snarled for dramatic effect as she spoke. ‘My mum was cooking beef for dinner, and because the lion was hungry, it could smell the beef from fifty miles away! So it made its way here – to my house.’
Lola gasped in shock, loving the danger.
‘And then…’ Freya paced slowly, milking every word. ‘The lion JUMPED through our front window, ran all the way through the house and broke EVERYTHING!’
‘That must be why there’s glass on your garden path!’ shouted Lola, pointing at the broken glass from the front-room window.
Freya nodded proudly at the evidence. ‘And then my mum wrestled the lion to the ground, like Tarzan of the Jungle. She managed to tie its paws together until the RSPCA came to take it back to the zoo, but now she’s had to go into hospital for a little while so the doctors can make sure she’s OK. It’s not every day that you wrestle a lion, you know.’
‘WOW!’ Lola clapped her hands together for Freya’s mum – the hero.
Freya beamed with pride.
Lola’s eyebrows lowered as she thought carefully and asked, ‘What happened to the beef?’
Freya and Lola both looked to Grandma Coalman.
‘Unfortunately, your mum wasn’t able to save the beef,’ Grandma Coalman said in her most sympathetic voice. ‘But it’s OK. It’s on offer for half-price at Tesco, so I’ll just buy some more.’
Bill and Nora got the girls into the car and Freya wound down the back window to say goodbye. I leant inside and kissed her forehead, promising I’d speak to her on Skype the following day.
I waved to my little sister as the car drove away, and as it disappeared out of sight, the entire contents of my stomach felt like they were going to come out of my mouth or out of my backside. That’s how stressed I was.
I walked around the side of the garden and closed my eyes.
When I opened them, I was faced again with the carnage my mother had so kindly left behind today. As I tried to absorb everything that had happened, I caught sight of our old rose bush in the corner of the garden,
looking as pitiful as I felt.
It used to grow the most amazing white roses I had ever seen. But since Dad passed away, not even the tiniest buds had graced its branches. What was once a burst of white petals, was now just … thorns.
‘Right then, kiddo.’ Mel opened her car door for me. ‘Are you ready to go?’
I hugged Grandma Coalman tightly. I could feel her shaking a little, and guilt brought tears to my eyes.
Hold it together, Em. Don’t let her see you upset. She has enough on her plate as it is.
‘Ring me tomorrow, OK?’ Grandma Coalman held my face and kissed my cheeks.
‘OK,’ I replied.
‘I’m so sorry that I can’t keep you both with me,’ Grandma Coalman said, ‘but Mel says that the bungalow isn’t big enough, and that I’m too old.’
‘Anna!’ Mel shouted. ‘I did not say that you were too old!’
‘That’s what you meant.’ Grandma Coalman scowled at Mel.
‘I’ll be fine, Gram,’ I reassured her. ‘Honestly!’
I sat in the back seat of the car. Mel got in and switched on the engine.
Grandma Coalman started to wave goodbye, but something to the left caught her eye and her face hardened.
I turned to see what she was looking at.
Stood on the pavement were Zoe-two-doors-up and her niece, Stacey Lock.
They both smirked at me and Grandma Coalman. They were clearly pleased with the chaos of the afternoon. It would give them something to tweet about.
Great. The last thing I needed was Stacey Lock knowing my business. She wasn’t exactly the kind of person who kept things to herself, and she always relished the chance to embarrass me in any way. The entire school
would know by the time we went back after half-term.
A sudden sharp pain attacked my eardrum. I cupped my hand over my ear to try and soothe it, but it was really strong. A loud ringing noise filled my ear, high-pitched and piercing. It felt like someone was blowing a whistle
inside my mind. ‘Aaarghhh!’
Mel quickly stopped the engine. ‘Em! Are you OK?’
Grandma Coalman yanked the car door open. ‘What’s the matter, love?’
‘It’s just my ear,’ I replied, wincing. ‘It’ll ease up in a
couple of minutes.’
Grandma Coalman looked over to where Zoe-two-doors-up and Stacey Lock were standing with smug grins on their faces. ‘Funny how your ear plays up whenever that girl shows her face, isn’t it?’
‘It’s probably just a coincidence,’ said Mel, laughing.
Grandma Coalman and I exchanged a knowing glance.
She raised her eyebrows. ‘If there’s anything that this family understands, it’s that there is no such thing as coincidence.’ She cast a watchful eye in Stacey Lock’s direction. ‘I think you might be allergic.’
‘To what?’ I asked.
‘Trouble.’ She closed the car door again and waved goodbye to us for the final time that day.
I looked through the back window and caught a glimpse of Stacey Lock laughing out loud as we drove away.