Going Away


Sophie Hampton



‘Look, 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 mouth.

‘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. 



‘Milk 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.


When Tom 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. 


When I 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 frame.

‘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.


I’m eating 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 lonely.


‘They’ve 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 feel sad?’

‘Not really, she was old.’

‘What, old like Percy?’ I shout.  ‘And that means it doesn’t matter?’

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 milk?’

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 savings.

‘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

Sophie would love to hear what you think of her writing - email her now