Fred Pettigrew and his mother: Those Left Behind
My wrist hurts.
I wish I was tucked up on the couch, with the television on, and plate of cup-cakes there beside me, and some salt and vinegar crisps, or maybe some cheese on toast, nice and brown and bubbly. There's a James Bond film on this afternoon – From Russia With Love. I've only seen that one once before. Dr No I've seen three times. Instead I'm here in the shop, helping Mum. In other words, I'm running the shop, while Mum sits in the corner and panics about the snow.
It was different when Dad was alive. He ran the shop, strong and competent, and when Mum went into one of her flutters, he could always talk her out of it, all quiet and calm. Mum was different then, though. She hardly fluttered at all. I used to think she was the bravest person I ever knew, back when I was five. Except for Dad, of course. I hadn't seen James Bond then, of course, but when I was old enough to go to the Saturday matinees with my friends, I thought the heroes were all very well, but not a patch on my Dad.
"My Dad could fight aliens," I told my friends. "He could biff monsters and bash lizard men from space. If he had a gun, he would shoot the bad guys, bang bang bang."
But I was wrong. When I was sixteen, he fell ill, and he couldn't fight it, after all. He looked so small and frail lying in that bed, not like my Dad at all. And then he died.
"You have to be the man about the house now, Fred," Grandpa told me. "Look after your mother. Women don't cope well with things like this, but you're almost a man now. You'll be strong for her, won't you?"
I knew that real men didn't cry. I knew that proper children stayed with their parents, for as long as their parents needed them. Mum took to her bed, fainting and crying. I left school, and did what I could in the shop.
That was fifteen years ago. Nothing has really changed.
I hurt my wrist yesterday, shovelling snow away from the door. I just slipped and fell, just like that. It hurt horribly, and Mum was panicking all around me, crying about her poor boy who was hurt, and in the end I had to comfort her, and help her inside, even though my wrist was hurting like anything. I think they tell lies in films. James Bond can get shot in the shoulder and just carry on going. In those first few minutes, my wrist hurt so much I could hardly breathe.
Dr Armstrong came round and said it was just a sprain, and not even a bad one. He bandaged it, and gave me a cream to make it hurt less, and told me to take aspirin just like with a normal headache. "Will I have to stay in bed?" I asked him, but he smiled, and said, "Oh no. You'll just have to do things one-handed for a bit. You're not left-handed, are you?" I'm not, so that means I'm still here, working in the shop.
I wish I was a boy again. Christmas always makes me feel this way. I stand in the shop, and watch all the children going past, all bright-eyed and happy, with their new toys and presents, and their Mums and Dads waiting for them at home. If they fell in the snow, their Mums would make sure they were tucked up snugly at home, and would bring them squash and cakes. At least they'd care.
No, no, that's not fair. Mum cares. Mum cares far too much. She flutters around me, saying I'm such a good boy, that it's so good of me to work like this when I'm hurt. Am I sure I'll be all right? Is it hurting? Should she call the doctor again? What if I trip again and hurt the other wrist, and the doctor can't get to us because of the snow?
I wish she wouldn't. I wish she'd sold the shop when Dad died, and gone to live with her sister, and let me go free.
I always did well at school. I was going to do A-levels. I might even have gone to university, the first in my family to do so. English was always my favourite; I liked making up stories. I had a hero called Jim Black. He was a bit like James Bond, but he fought monsters and aliens and he always got the girl. In my mind, he looked like me.
"Is it hurting very badly?" she asks me now, wringing her hands. Her dog stirs limply on her lap, a tiny pink tongue protruding from the ragged fur.
She looks far older than she really is. A lady never tells a man her age, she says, but I look after all her paperwork, and I know that she's fifty-four. She looks at least sixty-five. She dies her hair with tea leaves, which is silly, because her hair isn't really that grey underneath it. She aged ten years when Dad died, her face lined with fear and worry, and her shoulders all hunched, as if she was shrinking from the world. She could look quite striking if she tried. When I was little, I used to think she was the most beautiful Mummy in the world.
I have given up trying to make her change. I was only a boy myself when Dad died, and I didn't know what to do. I didn't know enough about people to understand that Mum was destroying herself. I didn't have the confidence to tell her she was losing her way, and help her back to the world of the living. I needed someone to tell me these things, and I had no-one.
"No, Mum," I tell her, for I love her really, despite everything. "I'm fine."
Oh, I do wish it would stop snowing. It isn't natural, snow like this. There's something malevolent behind it, I'm sure. It just keeps on and on and on, and there's no end to it, no end at all.
"It's just snow, Mum," Fred said, just this morning. "There's nothing sinister in it. Don't be silly. You sit down by the fire, and I'll make you a drink."
But he can't! He shouldn't be doing it! He hurt his wrist yesterday, the poor boy. I was so afraid when I found him lying there, curled in on himself like a baby, moaning with pain. Almost crying, he was, though he swears blind that he wasn't. I was so sure his wrist was broken. Dr Armstrong says it's only a sprain, but doctors do sometimes make mistakes. They told me my Bill would get better, and he didn't.
I went to make him some hot chocolate with extra sugar, because the poor boy has always liked that. "Three spoonfuls," I counted out, "and a fourth for luck." But my hands trembled so, and I ended up splashing some water onto my slippers. Fred found me, and gently took the kettle from my hands. "I'll do it, Mum," he said.
He is such a good boy, my Fred. He never complains. He was my rock in the dark days when Bill passed away. If it hadn't been for Fred, I think I might have let myself fade away and follow Bill. He did everything for me, and kept the shop running when I was too ill to get up. "I do it because I want to, Mum," he used to tell me, when I got too worried about him. "I do it because you're my Mum, the only one I've got."
He's the only boy I've got. I am so grateful that he is not one of those young men who dreams of travelling the world and making a career for himself. You hear about so many of those, nowadays. Fred's friends from school have scattered to the four winds, and we saw one of them in the papers just last week, head of some company or other, with a big fancy car. Well I never! The things these young people want nowadays, as if family and home was not enough.
Mr Beaumont says we should count our blessings. I have had many trials in my life, but Fred is not one of them. I am so lucky that Fred has never longed for anything else other than life at my side, at the heart of our little village.
Here he comes now, bustling and smiling, despite the awful bandage on his wrist, that I can hardly bear to look at. "No deliveries today, either," he says, smiling cheerfully, although the news is dreadful. No deliveries! We're cut off! What if the snow never stops, and we all freeze to death or starve. It can still happen in this day and age. Poor Mrs Randall's out of coal, and lots of people are out of bread and milk. Soon we'll all be living out of tins, and tins aren't a proper way to eat.
"Mum!" he chides. "We'll be fine."
But we won't! I'm so scared that we won't. Fred's already hurt himself. What if an old person slips on the snow? It could kill them, for sure. The government in London will be out there clearing the big roads, but we're just a little village off the beaten track. They'll forget us. Oh, this snow is so unnatural. We'll never see the sun again.
"Customers coming," Fred says cheerfully. He peers out of the window at the muffled figures labouring down the road. "It's the Stantons."
I take my place behind the counter, and run my hands through my hair. One must try one's best in front of customers, even if they're old friends you've known for years. I've known the Stanton children since they were born, first as babes in arms, and then as little school children spending the last of their pocket money on sweets. I have watched each of them come in their first solo errand from their mother, earnestly clutching the shopping list, and proudly walking away with a bag of flour, or a packet of eggs, or whatever else their mother had asked them to get. Mary dropped a whole packet of eggs on her first errand, and cried. James used to lose the list, and make it up.
Roger comes in, with Robin, and a well-muffled bundle that I think at first is James, but turns out to be Will. I have always had a soft spot for him, because of my Bill. I'm glad they chose to shorten his name to Will, though. I don't think I could have borne it if they had called him Bill.
I try to be dignified, I really do. I set about finding the things Roger asks for, but it is all too much. It's this snow. I just can't take it any more, I really can't. This snow is going to be the end of us all.
Of course Mum goes to pieces as soon as the Stantons enter the shop. It embarrasses me. I'm used to her ways, but she normally keeps the worst of it hidden from the customers. In private, I can gentle her out of one of her panics. In public, I find myself becoming almost annoyed with her.
But then the bell rings again, and in comes a tall man who introduces himself as the temporary butler up at the Manor. Will and Robin have met him before, it seems. I didn't even know that Mr Bates had left. I never know anything, shut up here as I am, except for endless gossip about Mrs Horniman's bunions and Mrs Evans' grandchildren.
The butler's called Mr Lyon, and he comes with a proposal from Miss Greythorne. She wants us all to go and stay at the Manor, the whole village all together.
I hope we go. It will be good for Mum to have other people around her, and I want a rest, too. I want to sit down and put my feet up. I wonder if there's a television at the Manor. There's a cook, so the food will surely be good.
Besides, it will be an adventure. Mr Lyon is the tall stranger who comes with a tip-off, leading the detective hero into a dangerous case. There is something about his face that seems to fit naturally into any story. He is the wizard who leads King Arthur to his destiny. He is the butler who saw everything about the crime. And a Manor is such a fitting place for it. All the villagers gathered in the ancient Manor, when suddenly there's a blood-curdling scream. "One of you did it," says Fred, the detective, and as the snow falls outside, he solves the mystery and exposes the murderer as… his Mum!
I come back to reality. Apparently the decision has been taken, and we are going. It is not an adventure at all, of course, and it is not an escape. I will have a few days of gossiping women and screaming children, and then the snow will melt, and everything will be the same as it has always been, and always will, until the end.