I’ve recently started taking time out after work each afternoon to write short stories. It’s partly to give me the opportunity to try out some new story ideas that aren’t meaty enough for novels, and partly aimed at increasing my writing speed through writing sprints.
Here’s one I wrote recently. It’s about a boy called Matthew. Matthew’s daddy gets angry sometimes. But he’s a big boy; can he protect his mummy?
I’m a Big Boy Now
Matthew leaned against the bannisters, his face cold against the hard wood. In his hand was Barnaby, his favourite bear.
Barnaby was wet, and sticky. Matthew kept his eyes on the back of Mummy’s head, below him; he didn’t want to look at Barnaby.
The front door hadn’t been properly closed and lights squeezed round it. Blue lights. He could hear voices outside, tinny like Mickey Mouse when he pressed the button on his back. Words that didn’t make sense pulsed up the stairs towards him. Stab wound – critical – intubate.
A man hurried through the front door, leaving it hanging open. Cold air rushed up the stairs. Matthew pulled his arms around himself, feeling Barnaby’s damp fur brush across the tops of his legs. He shivered and let the bear fall to the floor behind him.
The man headed straight for Mummy. She was sitting on the sofa, talking to a lady. Her voice was low but she sounded all warbly like she did when Daddy got home late. Daddy often got home late. Matthew would lie awake, blinking into the night and listening to Daddy’s key scratching against the door. Daddy wasn’t very good at opening the front door. Mummy was brilliant at it; she could get her key in first time. But Matthew knew it was harder than she made it look, because sometimes Daddy took six goes. The longer it took him, the louder he would be when he got inside. Crashing into the staircase like Matthew sometimes did when he played airplanes, except without the laughter and the kisses from Mummy afterwards.
Daddy hadn’t been late tonight. Matthew was still talking to Barnaby when he heard Daddy’s key in the lock – second time lucky, well done Daddy. Downstairs had gone quiet, Mummy switching the TV off like she always did. Daddy shouted at her if she watched her favourite programmes. Only the football was allowed when Daddy was home.
Matthew liked football. He liked that watching it on TV was the only time Daddy smiled. Except when his team lost. Sometimes when Daddy was out, Mummy would put the radio on and listen to Daddy’s favourite team playing. Matthew didn’t understand why; she hated football. But she said it prepared her.
Matthew didn’t understand how listening to football could help Mummy prepare for anything. But he liked listening to it, it made him think of the way Daddy had hugged him when his team won the cup last year. Daddy hadn’t hugged him since then. He preferred to ruffle his hair in that way that made Matthew’s head itch. But Matthew didn’t complain; he didn’t want to make Daddy cross.
The woman who was sitting next to Mummy, the one in the black uniform, looked up and over her shoulder, towards where Matthew was hiding. He pulled back quickly and held his breath. These people were scary, with their bulky clothes and their loud voices.
Matthew didn’t like loud voices. Mummy didn’t either; she and Matthew would whisper to each other in the mornings while Matthew got ready for school, Mummy’s eyes going to the ceiling more often than she probably realised. Matthew liked the whispering; it made him feel like he and Mummy had their own special secret.
Matthew was good at moving quietly. Stealth mode, Mummy called it, making it sound like a game. He felt behind him and grabbed Barnaby by the dry bit of his paw, feeling himself shudder at the thought of his fingers straying to a wet bit. He slid up the stairs. The people down there didn’t know he was here, that he was watching. In stealth mode. Mummy would be proud.
He stopped at the top of the stairs and peered round the banisters again. Did Mummy know he was up here, watching her? Making sure she was safe? He wanted to keep Mummy safe, to look after her. That was what big boys did, he’d learned that from his friend Alex at school. Alex had a baby sister and he’d been told that his job now was to look after her and keep her safe.
Matthew didn’t have a baby sister. Mummy had told him there was going to be a baby brother, back when he was in nursery. But then no baby brother had appeared and Matthew had assumed it was a fib to stop him eating so much chocolate. Matthew liked chocolate.
The two men in green overalls had stood up now. Another one in green, a lady this time, had come in. She had a trolley. The three of them lifted Daddy up off the floor and onto it. Matthew swallowed. He stared at Daddy’s face. He didn’t want to look at his body, for the same reason he wasn’t looking at Barnaby.
He felt his head go funny, like the time he’d eaten too much ice cream then gone on the waltzers with Alex and his dad. Alex’s dad was fun. He liked waltzers. And he didn’t come home late every night, according to Alex. Matthew had watched him hug Alex and it had made him feel like his stomach had gone missing. Or maybe that was the ice cream.
The green people were heading for the door now. Mummy watched them, her hair falling over her eyes. Mummy was always pushing her hair out of her eyes, although sometimes when they were out she liked to pull it forwards, to smooth it over her face. Matthew knew it was because she didn’t like the way people looked at the bumps on her face. I got a boo-boo, she would tell him, kissing her own fingers and touching her swollen skin to make it better. Matthew offered to kiss her boo-boos better – after all, she did it for him all the time – but she wouldn’t let him. Not that, she’d say. Not those.
The green people clattered out of the front door and the lady sitting with Mummy stood up. The man, the one who’d come in last, stood in front of her. He wore a brown jacket and the very top of his head had no hair. Matthew wondered if he knew. The man gestured at Mummy and she stood up too. She was wearing a funny bracelet, one on each hand. Matthew heard himself sob.
The man turned and looked up the stairs. Matthew lay down so they wouldn’t see him. He scuttled along the floor, hurrying to his room like he was a soldier on exercises like in Toy Story. He loved Toy Story. To infinity and beyond! Even if that was impossible.
There was a creak at the bottom of the stairs. Matthew knew every creak of the stairs. Mummy did too. Five creaks, and Daddy would be at the top. When five creaks were up, Matthew knew to stay quiet. To hide under his duvet and not come out till Mummy had stopped crying.
Except tonight had been different. Tonight, Mummy had been downstairs when she started crying. Matthew didn’t know what to do. What if he needed to go down for a glass of water? What if he needed the toilet? Their toilet was downstairs, past the kitchen. Not like Alex’s, which was next to his bedroom and covered in sunny yellow tiles.
Matthew had been making a project for school. He’d snuck the glue and scissors up to his room from the kitchen, even though he knew that wasn’t allowed. But Mummy had looked tired so he didn’t want to bother her.
The scissors were in his trouser pocket now. They jabbed at his thigh like an angry woodpecker, pecking away at him. He didn’t know what to do with them.
The stairs creaked again. The lady was three steps up, the lady who’d been sitting with Mummy. She was smiling.
“Hello. Matthew, isn’t it?”
He nodded. How could she see him? He was hiding in the dark. She must have really good eyes.
“Can I talk to you?”
He said nothing. Barnaby was behind him, dark and wet. Matthew shrank back a little and felt the scissors peck at him again. It hurt. But she couldn’t see them. He knew lying was bad– so if she didn’t see them, he wouldn’t have to lie.
She moved up one step. The next one was the creakiest. Matthew waited.
Creak. She put a hand out. It was clean and dark. He stared at it, thinking of Barnaby; dark but not so clean. He held his breath.
“Oh, you poor little man,” she said.
I’m not little, he thought. Mummy told him what a big boy he was all the time. How helpful he was, how responsible.
He was like Alex. But instead of protecting a baby sister, he’d protected Mummy.
“What’s that you’ve got in your pocket?” she asked, taking another step.
He swallowed. His face was cold. He shook his head. If he said nothing, would that count as lying?
He peered down the stairs. Mummy was looking up at him, standing at the bottom of the stairs in her bracelets. He wanted to tell her to take them off; they were ugly.
Mummy nodded at him. She smiled. She always told him to tell the truth.
He plunged his hand into his pocket and pulled the scissors out. The lady stiffened; her jaw went funny.
Matthew looked at her and back at the lady. The lady took another step, her arm outstretched.
He sniffed back a tear. “I’m a big boy,” he said. “I was protecting Mummy.”