I was five when I moved home.
“You haven’t told him.” The woman glared at Mum and then me.
“I thought it was your job,” Mum said with that sour edge to her voice that usually meant I was in trouble.
But it wasn’t my fault this time. I’d never seen the woman before.
I looked from one to the other. The woman was perched on the edge of the sofa. She was wearing black trousers and a jacket but she oozed out of them like toothpaste from the tube if you squeeze it in the middle. She had a big handbag on the floor and there was stuff oozing out of that too. Her hair was stringy and she kept tucking it behind her ears. She wasn’t as pretty as Mum. She didn’t wear lippy or jewellery. Mum always put lippy on as soon as she woke up.
I drove my red bus round the legs of the coffee table. A tyre had come off one of the wheels. I’d find it later. I wanted to hear what Mum and the woman were arguing about.
“You were supposed to have him ready to go this morning,” the woman looked accusingly at Mum.
“He’s ready,” Mum said. “He doesn’t come with baggage.”
The woman rolled her eyes as Mum pulled her housecoat tighter and gave a little wriggle. She enjoyed making the woman uncomfortable.
“Right then.” The woman stood up and pulled her trousers up to cover the oozy bits. “Come on, Mattie.”
I glanced at Mum. Where did the woman want me to go?
Mum didn’t move.
“Mattie? I’m taking you to your new home.”
Something lurched inside me and my world wobbled. My heart raced and an icy wave engulfed me. I curled up on the floor as small as I could but the woman reached down and grasped my hand.
I kept my eyes on Mum as the woman pulled me towards the door. Why didn’t Mum say something? I tried to think what I’d done wrong. Mum always said she’d give me away if I weren’t good.
I gripped the doorframe as the woman pulled.
“Mum?” My voice squeaked as she leaned back in her chair and didn’t look at me. I wanted to cry but Mum doesn’t like crying. If I snivelled, she’d tell me to stop or she’d give me something to cry about.
Instead my eyes were itchy and I bit my lip until it tasted of metal as the woman hurried me along the balcony past the neighbours’ flats and down the stairs to her car. I felt the curtains twitching as we went by.
The woman strapped me in and then got in herself. For a moment she rested her head on the steering wheel before starting the engine. I looked round but all I could see out of the window was sky.
“This is Matthew.”
We were in the hallway of a big house. The space around the staircase was nearly as big as the living room of Mum’s flat. The woman tucked her hair behind her ears again.
“Hello, Matthew. I’m Lisa.” Another woman bent down towards me and I shrank back. “Welcome. I hope you’re going to be very happy here.”
She stood up again, her face all smiles and her eyes crinkled like little raisins wedged in the crevasses.
“Does he have a bag?” Lisa asked.
The woman raised an eyebrow. “It wasn’t easy. Ring me if there’s a problem.”
She let herself out of the front door and disappeared. My heart galloped and a lump wedged itself in my throat making it difficult to swallow.
“Let me show you your bedroom,” Lisa said leading the way up the stairs.
“Here’s the bathroom.” She pushed open one door. “And your room.” She stood aside so I could see a blue room with a single bed, a wardrobe and a desk and chair. There was no bed for Mum and everything was tidy. It wasn’t my room.
Lisa opened drawers and cupboards revealing clothes and toys.
“Do you like Lego? We got some Lego and some puzzles and books. If there is anything you want let me know. I’m sure we can sort something out. We’re so happy you’ve come to live with us.” She squeezed her hands together and smiled again. I was afraid her face would stretch.
It was then I remembered my bus. In the confusion I’d left it under the coffee table. Hot fat tears squeezed from my eyes and I didn’t care what Mum would say. I wanted my bus. I wanted to go home. I wanted Mum, even if she was angry with me.
“Oh dear. It’s all a bit strange, isn’t it?” Lisa patted my shoulder. “Come and watch television?” She led the way back downstairs. At the bottom stair I stopped. Surely Mum would come. Surely she’d miss me by now. We’d never been apart so long. She loved me. She told me when she put on her make up in the mornings.
“You’re the only man for me, Mattie,” she’d say. “None of the others are worth it. There, can you see the bruise now?” She’d turn her head back and forth peering in the mirror.
I was still sitting on the bottom stair, waiting and watching the front door, when it opened and dark haired man came in. Lisa rushed out from the kitchen.
“He’s here!” she chirped to the man. “Mattie, this is Tony.”
“Hello, Mattie,” Tony said. “Why are you sitting on the stairs? Come into the kitchen with me?”
Lisa and Tony smiled at each other and Lisa edged us into the kitchen where she bustled round preparing food.
“What do you like to eat, Mattie? Eggs? Beans? Pizza?”
I swallowed. Mum usually made me a sarnie for dinner with a bit of sugar if she’d got some. Sometimes though, when there wasn’t any bread I’d just dip my finger in the sugar and go to bed with my stomach rumbling.
After Lisa’s dinner my stomach was bursting. I waddled upstairs to bed. As I got undressed I found the tyre from my bus in my shorts pocket. I held on to it tightly. It felt like a polo mint in my hand.
“Do you want a story?” Lisa perched on the edge of my bed holding a book. I’d never had a story before. I shook my head. Lisa’s shoulders drooped.
“Maybe tomorrow, then.” She patted my hand and pulled the duvet up. I made myself as small as possible and wished the night were over.
My new bedroom was very quiet. Usually, after I went to bed, Mum’s friends arrived. They would talk and laugh and glasses and bottles crashed about. Sometimes there would be crying or screaming and thumps and bangs. I wasn’t allowed out of the bedroom. I stayed with my head tucked under the duvet, listening until I fell asleep.
In the morning Lisa bustled into my room.
“School!” she said brightly getting out trousers, t-shirt and sweatshirt. They had stiff creases and itchy labels. They were all new. My clothes were never new. I put my tyre in a pocket.
We walked along the road from Lisa’s house. I scanned the street for Mum.
“I’ll be here to get you at home time,” Lisa said at the classroom door. I bit my lip. Maybe Mum would come before then. I hadn’t been to school before. It was all very loud and the children laughed at my answers to the teacher’s questions. In the playground I stood by the fence, alone, and looked for Mum. There was no sign of her.
At the end of the day Lisa was at the gate.
“Did you have a good day?”
When we got back I sat on the bottom stair until Tony returned. He took me out in the garden for a game of football. He didn’t talk and didn’t ask questions. He stayed in goal.
“What would you like for tea, Mattie?” Lisa was standing in the doorway. Tony walked over and put an arm around her.
“Don’t try so hard,” he said. “Give him time.”
On Saturday there was no school and Tony was home.
“Shall we build a castle?” he said. We sat on the floor in my bedroom and sorted out Lego. There were little people and windows and doors and a flag for the top.
When we finished we went downstairs to watch the telly. Tony liked football. I liked cartoons.
Gradually I realised that Lisa’s house wasn’t so big. I learned where all the rooms were. I knew which stairs creaked. I knew what I could touch and what I couldn’t. I kept the tyre from my bus in my pocket just in case Mum came. I thought about running away to find her. I saved sandwiches from my school lunch and put them under my pillow but when I went downstairs at night the front door was always locked and in the morning the sandwiches had gone.
At weekends we went to the zoo or the park. I watched out for Mum. Now and then I saw her blond hair and red coat but when I ran to look, it was someone else. I made her promises — if she came to get me I’d always be good.
Lisa was never angry. She never shouted. She and Tony always smiled and sometimes I smiled with them even though it felt bad smiling without Mum. We went on something called a holiday and stayed in a caravan like a little house. Tony and I played football, built sandcastles on the beach and paddled in the sea. Lisa bought us big ice creams with chocolate flakes and told us we wouldn’t want tea, but we did.
I forgot to look for Mum on holiday. When we got back to Lisa’s house I wished I could go back and search for her but then I remembered Mum never went anywhere except the shops and the flat. I sat on the bottom stair and cried.
One afternoon I heard Lisa scream. I ran into the garden where Tony was lying on the grass.
“Oh, Mattie. Fetch my phone please! Quickly.”
An ambulance came. The men took Tony to hospital. Lisa was crying as she drove us after it.
We sat in the corridor on sweaty chairs, waiting. Nurses and doctors hurried past, too busy to talk, footsteps echoing. Lisa gripped my hand hard. At last they let us see Tony. He was lying in bed with wires stuck on him and a machine beeping like Lisa’s washing machine when it finished the wash. Lisa leaned over and kissed him. She wasn’t smiling today.
I squeezed Tony’s hand and he looked up.
“Look after things, Mattie,” he said. “You’re the man of the house until I get home.”
“Sssh,” Lisa said. “We’ll be back tomorrow.” She brushed his hair off his forehead and kissed him again. “Take care.”
As we walked back along the corridor I saw the woman with blond hair in a red coat. I froze and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I couldn’t speak.
“Mattie?” Lisa said.
The woman turned. Her eyes met mine. In her arms she held a baby, wrapped in a white blanket. She had replaced me.
“Who is that, Mattie?” Lisa’s voice was thick.
The woman took a step towards us.
“I don’t know,” I said, turning away, ignoring the tightness in my chest as tears filled my eyes.
I took Lisa’s hand and pulled her towards the exit. As we hurried to the car I felt in my pocket. The rubber tyre from my bus was nestled in the fluff. I took it out, squeezed it between my fingers, then let it drop down the grating of a drain cover.
I was seven when I knew where my new home was.
Alyson Hilbourne has been writing short stories in her spare time for many years. She has been published in The People’s Friend, Prima, Woman’s Weekly, online and in several anthologies. In 2014 she won the Sophie King Prize for a romantic short story, in 2016 Writers Bureau flash fiction competition and in 2017 she won a trip to the Iceland Writing Retreat with a short story in Writing Magazine. Although flash fiction is her favourite writing form she still dreams of being a ‘real’ author and finishing a novel. Alyson tweets on writing and the Lake District where she lives @ABBK1. She is a member of the online writing group Writers Abroad.