A month earlier
‘Hello!’ I yell, barging through the front door of the bowls club and up the stairs to our flat.
I catch my bright yellow bee-print crutches on the corner of the rug. I lose my balance and tip backwards, scrambling to stay upright, but save myself just in time by leaning to the left to avoid getting my school rucksack jammed in the radiator (which is what happened yesterday – I was stuck like a dangling beetle for seven whole minutes cos Gran wanted to watch the end of Bargain Hunt).
There’s a loud crash as I collide with the radiator.
I wait for Grandad to yell, ‘Enjoy your trip, Mimi?’
Nothing. That’s weird. He never misses an opportunity to make a terrible joke.
I wait another moment for Gran to shout at me for shortening the door’s lifespan by slamming it. But there’s not a bean. Proper mystery.
I smile as I toss my rucksack into the corner of the hallway. I like mysteries. I think I’d be very good at solving them. My bag scoots into the antique coat stand – Oh, I’m in proper bother if I break a precious thing! I hold my breath and squint as it teeters and wobbles and almost clatters into the dresser with Gran’s posh bits on –
– but not quite.
The only casualty is a black suit jacket that slides off the coat stand and lands on the floor in a crumpled heap.
Who on earth does that belong to? All our coats are very proudly jumble sale. This one looks shiny, like one a magpie would choose. I hang up my bright red raincoat and make sure the sleeves aren’t concertinaed up inside (things have to be right).
No one’s even come to check if I’m OK after my crash. Thanks a bunch. It’s not like I bash into things on purpose: it’s all a matter of hands. When you use crutches like I do, things tend to be a little more thuddy.
We always do the routine when I get in from school. It goes like this:
Gran shouts at me about banging the door, and I yell back, ‘Crutches!’
She says, ‘No excuse,’ and tries to stick my fringe down and tidy up my plaits.
Then Grandad comes out and goes, ‘Here, Mimi, this’ll do it,’ and pretends to spit on his hand to slick my hair down. We do the biscuits-on-a-bridge joke routine and noisily bounce into the kitchen for Gran’s lemon meringue pie, and they both ask about my day at school.
But... no one comes out to greet me. No routine today.
Does that mean that the black suit jacket is bad news?
Last time there was a suit jacket in the hall, it was a social worker and a ‘we just need to keep an eye on the situation, what with the progressing age of your grandparents, but there’s nothing to worry about’ chat. Obviously, as soon as someone says that, it makes me do all the worries.
I prod the jacket with my crutch and leave a muddy circle on it. I lean my crutches against the radiator cover that was once painted red but is now a faded, scratched pink. I creep towards the Room for Best; that’s where the visitor will be. I press my ear up against the closed door.
It’s a top-banana idea to check whether a door is properly closed before you start spying.
I do not do that.
The door bursts open, and I tumble through and land in a heap on the swirly, multicoloured carpet.
‘Nice of you to join us,’ says Grandad. ‘You OK? Enjoy your trip?’
Now he says it!
I swipe my hair from my eyes and stick my tongue out at him.
The person who must be the owner of the jacket is sitting on the upright wooden chair, next to Gran and Grandad on the posh settee. Grandad keeps taking his unlit pipe out of his mouth, tapping it on his knee and putting it back in again. He hasn’t smoked since 1973! And he only does the pipe-tap routine when he’s worried, or someone talks about money. Bert says Grandad has a wallet full of moths.
Then I realize they’ve taken the plastic cover off the posh settee.
This must be very important.
Is it worryingly important?
Gran is dabbing her eyes with a hankie. I peer at her. ‘Rheumy,’ she says. Which is the word older people use when they have wet eyes.
‘Would you like any assistance?’ asks Mr Suit, and I realize I’m still in my heap, and I’ve been doing lots of thinking, which I don’t always realize I’m doing, and then I come back to earth and find people staring at me.
I shake my head and crawl over to sit on the floor in front of Gran and Grandad, keeping my eyes on the man. He looks creepy, like if you blinked he’d be able to zip across the room and be right up in your face and staring at you when you open your eyes.
I must not blink until he leaves.
No one introduces him to me. Well then, I’ll do it myself.
‘Hello,’ I say. ‘I’m Mimi Evergreen.’
He opens his mouth to speak, and Gran yells out, ‘He’s an accountant!’ just as Grandad yells, ‘He’s not a social worker!’
Mr Suit goes to say something and then thinks better of it, pursing his lips and folding his hands carefully, then placing them in his lap.
Gran and Grandad both reach for me and each place a hand on my shoulders at exactly the same time.
I know summat is up, and I start to tell them so when suddenly there’s a pressure in my ears, like when you go through a tunnel on a train. I slam my hands over them. I squish my eyes tight closed because it makes my tummy feel all woozy, and I think I might be sick. When I open them again, my heart beats faster in my chest, boom-boom-boom, faster still – and, as I watch, a crack appears along the wall above the mantelpiece. Like someone has just drawn a jittering line in marker pen.
I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Damp cold oozes out of the crack. I do a whole body shudder, and my skin feels like it might crawl off my arms.
‘Look!’ I whisper, and point. Gran turns round, peers behind the corner lamp with the yellow tassels and says, ‘At the ballerina ornament? No need to bring our visitor’s attention to the chip in its tutu. What will he think of us!’ She giggles and looks coy and nervous and wrong all at the same time.
What? Can’t she see the crack?
But when I point to it again, it’s gone. What on earth? Did I imagine it? But it’s left my crawling skin feeling greasy and green, like I need a bath.
Grandad shakes his head at me and rolls his eyes, then says, ‘The accountant was just leaving,’ and gets up and walks over to hold open the door I fell through.
Mr Suit does not immediately follow but stares at Gran and cocks his head, like he’s waiting for her to say something. She doesn’t. Mr Suit stands and walks towards me.
Do not blink. Do not blink. Do not blink.
He crouches in front of me. I can still smell the damp in my nostrils, and I can’t tell if it’s coming off him too.
‘It was lovely to meet you, Mimi Evergreen,’ says Mr Suit the accountant who isn’t a social worker, and he smiles. ‘I’m sure I’ll see you again.’
‘Why?’ I ask. ‘What if I don’t want to see you again?’
‘Mimi!’ says Gran sternly, and prods me for good measure. ‘Don’t be so rude.’
‘Well, Mimi,’ says Mr Suit, ‘some things are just... inevitable.’
He winks at me, and I can feel the pressure in my ears again. He holds my gaze too long, and I think he’s going to say something else, but he doesn’t. He puts his hand on Gran’s hand, which is still on my shoulder, and I can feel the weight of both of them pressing down on me. I turn to look at her again, and out of the corner of my eye I see another crack appear along the wall. I can actually see it forming, juddering and breaking like a glitchy spiderweb.
Not just breaking, breathing.
Suddenly I can’t breathe.
‘Not this again, pet.’
‘The –’ But when I go to point, it’s vanished again. Not even the faintest trace on the wall.
I need to focus on facts, stop my brain looping and spiralling out of control. I turn to Mr Suit, who is heading out of the door. ‘Look, are you actually really here about subsidence?’ I ask him. He looks very confused (maybe he didn’t learn the word in geography) so I explain it to him. ‘Subsidence is when the ground shifts and causes damage to buildings.’
He opens his mouth, then closes it. It’s still not sinking in for him, so I say, ‘Wouldn’t they usually send an insurance person? If this is about the cracks?’
At exactly the same time as he’s opening his mouth to reply, Gran says, ‘Yes,’ and Grandad says, ‘No,’ and then Grandad grins at me and yanks Mr Suit the accountant’s arm and hauls him out of the room.
I turn to face Gran and cock my head at her.
‘Well, he’s a funny one, isn’t he?’ she says and then giggles.
Her laugh always makes me laugh, even when I don’t want to. I try to hold it in and put on my miserable face and say, ‘No,’ but when I say the word a giggle sneaks out, which I definitely didn’t want to happen, but it does. Gran always has that effect on people. Smiles pop out even when you’re not expecting them.
‘No!’ I say again, trying to keep my face all serious, but this time I snort too, which makes Gran laugh more, and then Grandad comes back into the room and asks, ‘What’s so funny?’ which is obviously not a funny question, but for some reason it really is, and Gran and I laugh and laugh until I can’t breathe, and I have to waft my hands around to help, and then we all go into the kitchen and lay the table for tea, but I can’t help looking over my shoulder to check for cracks.