Loving Ellen - extract Chapter 1
Rachel Ryan is my best friend bar none. She knows everything there is to know about me. Well, almost everything. She knows my ex bailed out on me soon after I had our second child, taking every penny of our meagre savings with him. She knows how much I regret leaving school without qualifications and how much I regret getting married when I was barely eighteen. She even knows I once had the hots for Daniel until I saw how he looked at her and knew I was onto a loser. She doesn’t know what happened last summer though. Nobody does. Nor are they going to. I mean how could I ever begin to explain that I made a deal with a ghost.
It began when I was polishing the deli counter in Ryan’s Village Store, which is where I work, and heard a crash. Throwing down my cloth, I ran to the open doorway. The man lying in the middle of the road was disentangling his legs from a bicycle that had fallen sideways, tipping him and an overflowing sports bag onto the gritty asphalt. As I hurried to help him I saw a black and white football roll towards the curb and my heart sank. It didn’t matter how many times I scolded Liam and Connor for kicking balls in the yard, they still did it. And now this! I began to pick up his scattered belongings while the man righted himself and the bicycle to the accompaniment of some steady and colorful cursing.
When I handed him his bag I noticed the blood trickling down his leg. He followed my gaze and winced.
“I must have scraped it on the pedal.”
Seeing the livid slashes on both his forearms and the grit-embedded rash on one side of his face, I felt sick with worry. “Are you sure you haven’t broken anything? What about your head? Did you knock it when you fell? Do you…should I call someone?”
He gave a grim smile. “I think a couple of sticking plasters will do it, and maybe a chance to clean myself up a bit.”
Still doubtful, I waited while he propped his bicycle against the wall and dumped the sports bag next to it, and then led him into the shop. Grabbing plasters, cotton wipes and a bottle of antiseptic from a shelf, I thrust them into his hands, pointed up the stairs and told him the bathroom was the first door on the right.
By the time he returned, limping slightly, Liam and Connor were lined up, their apologies rehearsed and their faces suitably contrite.
I waited for them to say something, secure in the knowledge that whatever else I might have got wrong, I had at least taught them good manners. When nothing was forthcoming I frowned, but before I could prompt them, the unfortunate cyclist spoke.
“It’s Liam Carter isn’t it?”
“Well what have you got to say for yourself Liam?”
“Not good enough. How about, sorry sir and I’ll never kick a ball into the road again.”
“Sorry sir. I’ll never kick a ball into the road again.” Liam’s voice was a mumble of embarrassment. Beside him Connor squirmed in sympathy.”
“And why is that?” The man still wasn’t ready to let him off the hook.
“Because it could have been a lot worse if a car had been driving along when you fell off your bike.”
“I was knocked off my bike Liam. I didn’t fall.”
“No sir…I mean yes sir. Sorry sir.”
“Right. Well just remember what happened the next time you want to kick a ball. You too, young man. Being younger than your brother is no excuse for doing something silly,” he turned to Connor who visibly paled under the unwanted scrutiny.
Although I knew my sons deserved a tongue-lashing, the sight of the tears brimming in Connor’s eyes almost made me feel sorry for him. Even Liam was biting his lip instead of displaying the usual bored resentment that had recently become his default expression.
I turned back to the cyclist. He saw my unspoken question and gave the shadow of a smile. “Liam and I met at his school recently.”
All I could think was that perhaps he had been running some sort of arty workshop. I couldn’t imagine what else anyone cycling around the village in faded shorts and a baggy T-shirt would be doing at the school. His hair was a bit too long and he had a tattoo as well. He was probably a musician or an artist, and possibly not a very good one if he had to pad out his earnings at Mapleby primary.
I was suddenly aware of Liam and Connor fidgeting beside me, anxious to escape. I gave them a gentle push. “Go and wash your hands. I’ll be up in a minute.”
They didn’t need a second bidding. With one last worried glance at their nemesis, they clattered up the stairs. I turned back to the cyclist. “I’m so sorry. What more can I say other than I’ll make sure they never do it again.”
“You can guarantee that can you Mrs. Carter?”
I felt a flicker of irritation. Liam and Connor were in the wrong, which meant I was too, but we had all apologized so why couldn’t he let it drop? It wasn’t even as if he was very badly injured. Now he had cleaned up his abrasions I could see they were all superficial. I wasn’t about to make things worse though, so hoping I looked more positive than I felt, I nodded.
To my surprise, he grinned at me. “In that case your parenting skills are better than mine.”
I relaxed just a tiny bit. “You have children?”
“Just one. A daughter who is almost five going on sixteen and who is developing an increasingly laissez-faire attitude towards any rules I try to impose.”
“I thought girls were meant to be easier.”
“Don’t you believe it.”
I walked him to the door and waited while he reclaimed his bicycle and swung one leg over the saddle, wincing slightly as he did so.
Worry came flooding back. “Are you sure you’re okay? If you wait a bit Daniel can take you home when he gets back from the wholesalers. Your bike will easily fit into his van.”
He shook his head. “I’m fine, just a bit sore. Goodbye Mrs. Carter, and thanks for the plasters.”
I half raised my hand as he rode away. Then I went to find Liam and Connor.
* * *
They were both lying on the couch, which wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that they were neither watching TV nor playing on the Xbox Daniel and Rachel had given them for Christmas. They weren’t even talking to one another. Ignoring the misery on his face, I confronted Liam.
“Has something happened that you’ve forgotten to tell me about?”
He shook his head.
“Then how come he knew you?”
“Cos I showed him around the school. I told you…I did Mom. I said.”
Remembering how proud he had been towards the end of the summer term when his teacher had chosen him to look after the man who was going to be the new school principal, I stared at him in disbelief. “You mean he…the man you knocked off his bicycle…is…oh well done Liam! If you’d planned it, you couldn’t have hoped for a more spectacular start to the next school year.”
He shrugged, pretending he didn’t care. Sighing inwardly, I turned away, ashamed I had resorted to sarcasm and knowing I wouldn’t get any more answers. It was no good wishing for a manual to guide me through Liam’s teenage years. I was going to have to wing it like every other parent.
Connor followed me through to the kitchen and wanting to make things better for his brother, gave me the only thing he could think of. “I know his name.”
Despite everything, I smiled. Although Connor is only eighteen months younger than Liam, the gap seems bigger. I hugged him, glad that at least one of my sons still lets me cuddle him. “What is it then?”
“It’s Mr. Penny.”