there are two bottles of milk on Mrs McGovern’s doorstep,’ says Tom, rolling a scab
between his thumb and forefinger.
I glance at the step, reluctantly taking my eyes off the
trickle of blood oozing from the cut on his knee.
‘That’s strange,’ I say. ‘She normally only gets one.’
‘People always forget to cancel their milk when they go
away,’ Tom says knowledgeably. ‘Then they get burgled. Serves them right.’
He accurately aims the scab at my forehead and I squeal
although I’m secretly pleased.
‘We might as well drink it,’ he says.
‘Isn’t that stealing?’
‘Course not. It will only go off and a burglar will notice
and break in and find the lifelong savings hidden under her bed.’
‘How do you know she keeps them under her bed?’
‘Cos old people do, they don’t trust the banks. Sometimes
they slit the mattress open, put the cash in and sew it up again.’ He bends
his head closer to mine. ‘But it’s a stupid place to hide money because old
people wet themselves.’
I laugh, breathing in the warm air filled with the fishy smell
of the sea and Tom’s bubblegum. It is only half way through the holidays but the
tufts of hair on top of his head are almost white and I can make out shapes in
the freckles on his face. A burst bubble has left a film of gum around his
‘What are you looking at?’ he asks.
‘Nothing,’ I say quickly.
‘I’m going to get the milk,’ says Tom decisively, spitting
on his hand and wiping blood off his leg.
Mrs McGovern’s ugly white house is at the end of the terrace
so it will be the first to go; her garden wall slipped over the edge of the
cliff during a storm in March. She is rarely seen outside but I sometimes spot
her lowering herself into the armchair by her window and I follow her blank
gaze out to sea.
There are no flowers in her garden, most of it is paved with
yellow slabs and there are a few weeds growing in the cracks. Once Mum said that
people concreting over everything is bad for the libido and I repeated it to
Tom and he laughed and said I had better check that word in the dictionary. I
didn’t because I was scared it would mean something really embarrassing.
Tom stands the bottles upright on a bare patch of grass.
‘She gets one bottle every two days so one of them must be
off already,’ he says, removing the foil lids and sticking his finger into the
solid cream on top of one of the bottles. ‘Yuck, this stinks. Here, smell.’
I sniff cautiously, ‘Yep, gross,’ I agree.
‘Percy will like it,’ says Tom, calling his cat who’s sprawled
in the sunshine on Mrs McGovern’s patio. Percy ignores him. ‘Do you want to
give him some?’ he asks, passing me the bottle.
I check that Mum isn’t around and open Mrs McGovern’s gate
and walk quickly, the soles of my feet burning on the slabs. I bend down next
to Percy and scoop some rancid cream on my finger. He licks it with a flick of
his rough tongue and then rolls over, uninterested. I stroke the hot thin fur
on his back, running my fingers over his bumpy spine.
Tom and I drink the other bottle, first sharing the cream and
then the milk. I spill a few drops on the new pink skirt I am wearing; I kept it
in my wardrobe for when Tom came home for the school holidays but he hasn’t
noticed it. We check for milk moustaches and rinse the bottles under a garden tap
before putting them back on Mrs McGovern’s step.
‘That milk was delicious,’ I say as we trudge along the
narrow shingle ridge that divides the marshland from the beach. ‘Much creamier
than the milk Mum buys.’
‘Yeah, it was good. Hopefully Mrs M will be away for ages.’
‘Where do you think she’s gone?’
‘Oh, on an old people’s holiday somewhere. On a coach
probably, old people like to go on coaches.’
‘Really? Where to?’ I ask, tucking damp strands of hair
behind my ears.
‘I don’t think they go anywhere in particular.’
‘What, they just stay on the coach?’
‘Yeah, pretty much. Except at night. At night they stay in
hotels but during the day they stay on the coach.’
Poor Mrs McGovern. When she’s at home she sits in her
armchair and when she’s on holiday she sits on a coach.
time! Your turn to get it,’ says Tom.
We wait until after lunch because Mrs McGovern takes her
milk in by midday so we know she’s not back yet. I bend to pick up the bottle and
my heart misses a beat when I hear voices inside the house. I panic and run empty-handed
back to Tom.
‘Hey, what’s the matter?’
‘I heard voices in her house,’ I whisper urgently. ‘There
are people in there.’
‘It’ll be the TV.’ Tom laughs. ‘It’s another thing old
people do. They leave the TV on so people think they’re in but then they
forget to cancel the milk.’
‘Are you sure?’ I look at Tom, unconvinced. His freckles
have morphed into one shapeless mass and his brown arms and legs are covered in
fine golden hair.
‘Of course I am. I’ll get the milk if you’re scared.’
He strolls over and picks up the bottle then rings the doorbell
over and over again. I watch nervously as the sound echoes across the garden.
Percy lifts his head but nobody answers the door.
‘There, told you.’
I’m still a bit freaked out though, I feel uncomfortable
about taking the milk. If I told Mum she could phone the milkman and cancel the
order until Mrs M comes back from holiday.
The milk is warm and sickly and although I almost gag at the
last gulp, I enjoy sharing it with Tom. I like the way he puts his lips around
the neck of the bottle where mine have just been. The other day he wiped away
my milk moustache. I liked that too.
goes away for the weekend, he leaves strict instructions not to forget the
milk. I collect the bottle but notice that Percy is missing from his usual
place on the patio and wonder if he has found some shade. I don’t want to
drink the milk so I pour it away and then search for the cat. I finally spot
him sleeping in the long grass at the far end of Mrs McGovern’s garden, near
the edge of the cliff. I stroke his warm fur but his body is stiff. I put my
ear to his nose. Percy is dead.
Dad puts him in a cardboard box and places it carefully on a
shelf in our shed. I don’t cry until I put the bottle back on Mrs McGovern’s
step and notice the cat hair caught on the rough slabs where Percy always lay.
It is too muggy to sleep and I hear Tom and his parents come
back just before midnight. Sweat is trickling down my chest, even though I
have thrown my sheet on the floor, and I drag myself out of bed and push the
windows wide open. I peer at Mrs McGovern’s house and imagine the sound of the
TV echoing through the empty rooms. The house looks creepy in the dark but I decide
that when Mrs McGovern comes home I will make an effort to talk to her; I can ask
about her holiday.
was little, I thought the small pools of water in the marsh were the deep
footprints of a beast who had stomped across the land. The pools are now either
shallow or dry and the hardened earth of the path Tom and I take to the village
is cracked and looks like crazy paving. As we pass the faded blue fishing
boat, Tom kicks it hard, splintering three or four ribs of its rotten wooden
‘Why did you do that?’ I ask crossly.
‘Why not?’ says Tom.
‘Because we’ve played in that boat for years and...’
‘Stop nagging,’ Tom says sharply and I feel a wave of heat
sweep across my cheeks. Tom didn’t used to go round kicking things.
‘Tom, I think we should stop drinking the milk.’
‘Because bad things keep happening.’
‘Like what?’ asks Tom impatiently.
‘Well, there were those voices and now Percy’s died.’
Tom rolls his eyes, the whites bright in his tanned face.
‘Stop being such a girl. The noise was the television.’
‘But we haven’t heard it before.’
‘It’s because it’s been so still recently, stupid. Look at
the grass, there’s no wind at all.’
He’s right as usual. The pale grasses, their colour sucked
away by the fierce heat of summer, are bent so close to the ground they are
almost horizontal but there is no sea breeze today. Everything is still except
the road in the distance, which shimmers in the heat.
‘And do you know how old Percy was?’ continues Tom. ‘He was
seventeen. That’s probably a hundred in human years. He had to die sometime.’
Tom is staring at the patch of eczema inside my elbow. It looks
horrible and I cross my arms to hide the flaky scales. A beam of sunlight suddenly
breaks through the clouds and the colourless landscape glows under the warm
light but I feel cold inside.
dinner when a police car drives up and parks outside Mrs McGovern’s. Dad goes
outside while Mum hovers by the window, chewing her nails. An ambulance
arrives but it isn’t a normal ambulance, it’s a car, and there are no flashing
lights or sirens, it’s like watching TV with the sound turned down. Mum closes
the curtains and she never closes the curtains.
‘Stay in here.’ She sounds worried. ‘Don’t look through the
window,’ she adds as she shuts the door.
I hear Dad come in and the murmur of voices. I think Mum is
crying. I quietly turn the door handle and listen through the crack.
‘… about two weeks,’ says Dad sounding upset.
‘I can’t believe we didn’t notice,’ sobs Mum. ‘We’re her
neighbours, for God’s sake.’
I had never thought that Mrs McGovern would die before her
house crumbled into the sea. I imagined that one stormy night her bedroom wall
would collapse and she would slide in to the water in a four-poster bed, which
would bob up and down on the waves and sail somewhere where she would be less
left the windows open because the house stinks!’ announces Tom excitedly.
‘It’s gross. Think how hot it’s been.’
‘Suppose so,’ I say, desperately blinking back tears.
‘I bet there were thousands of flies…’
‘Tom, I don’t want to talk about it,’ I snap. ‘Don’t you
‘Not really, she was old.’
‘What, old like Percy?’ I shout. ‘And that means it doesn’t
I chew hard on my bottom lip, glaring at him, but he defiantly
holds my gaze. I feel angry and confused as I stare at the boy who fills my
diary and my dreams.
I take a deep breath. ‘The milk wasn’t delivered today.’
‘Yes, I noticed,’ says Tom, finally looking away and
blushing, despite his mass of freckles.
‘Tom, do you think we could have…’
‘You won’t tell anyone, will you?’ he interrupts. ‘About the
Two men carry a mattress from the house and load it into the
house clearance van. They have taken off their shirts and their scarlet faces
are glistening with sweat. I wonder if they’ve found Mrs McGovern’s lifelong
‘No, I won’t,’ I say slowly, my voice trembling. ‘There’s
not much point now, is there? But, perhaps we should have known. After all,
people always forget to cancel their milk when they die.’
©2009 Sophie Hampton
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