The classroom felt airless that Friday afternoon, and Hal’s nostrils were fighting off the cocktail of stale smells coming from his year eight classmates as they shifted restlessly at their desks, anxious for the weekend to begin. Someone started chucking bits of Satsuma peel across the room and then someone else broke wind loudly causing everyone to groan with disgust. Miss Furby, their form tutor, rolled her eyes to the ceiling, tapping her short ruby fingernails impatiently on her clipboard.
“Quieten down or you’ll get detention,” she threatened and everyone immediately sat still.
“Now, are we all clear we are meeting the coach at nine o’clock sharp outside Wilkinson’s on Monday morning, for the school trip?” Miss Furby scanned the list she was holding and began to frown. She looked directly at Hal, sitting in the back row.
“Hal, you’re not on the list. Did you forget to give in your form?”
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Hal squirmed in his seat and felt the dreaded blush rising in his neck.
“No Miss, I can’t go Miss,” he mumbled.
A piece of Satsuma peel hit the side of his head causing a ripple of muffled laughter and Hal’s cheeks burned.
Miss Furby opened her mouth to say something and then closed it again.
“Come and see me after class Hal,” was all she said.
Hal’s stomach clenched. He couldn’t bear the thought of her looking at him with those big benevolent eyes she saved for ‘children with special needs’ and telling him he needn’t pay for the trip if his Mum couldn’t afford it. The bell rang shrilly and the class erupted with the deafening din of chairs scraping, and thirty teenagers shouting. Hal kept his eye on Miss Furby and as soon as she turned to wipe the board clean, he slipped out, unnoticed.
Hal ran all the way home, navigating the labyrinth of alleyways on the Hattersley estate like a laboratory mouse, the bitter cold biting through his thin blazer. He stood at his favourite vantage point in his living room on the thirteenth floor of Milton Court, his nose squashed against the window. Clouds were already deepening in banks of dusk over the sprawling estate. He could just make out the dull yellow light from the window of the Chippy where his Mum worked long shifts every day, serving battered sausage and scraps to drunks from the pub next door. He listened out for Madge, his new neighbour, who was late. He couldn’t wait to drink tea with her, eat a slice of her sponge cake and ask her to tell him funny stories about mishaps at the bread factory where she worked.
The day they met she was hunting through two black bin bags filled with clothes, books, and groceries, looking for her key. She looked like an odd little spider, crouching on the doormat in black leggings, long strands of black hair escaping from her messy topknot. Her dark, pebble eyes shone from deep sockets and her large bony nose and razor sharp cheekbones were covered in a skein of red veins. She had grinned up at him with crooked brown teeth and spoke with a soft Scottish lilt when she invited him in for tea. Madge listened to Hal, she made him laugh with her stories and best of all, she wanted to be his friend. She was the only friend Hal had.
Hal heard the sound of keys jangling in the hall and he rushed to the front door and poked out his head. Madge was carrying bags of shopping into her flat.
“Hal, hello!” she called out to him. “I bought some food, it’s pay day. Would you like something to eat?”
Hal nodded vigorously. He was starving. He checked he still had his key hanging around his neck and closed his front door behind him.
Madge’s flat was the same shape as Hal’s, but with the rooms on the left hand side of the hallway instead of the right. Hal’s flat smelt of his Mum’s stale cigarette smoke but Madge’s flat was like an enchanted grotto, filled with twinkling strings of fairy lights and the smell of cinnamon from her incense sticks.
“We’re going to make chicken fajitas today,” Madge sang merrily, “and you Hal, are going to be the chef.”
Hal’s heart gave a little leap. He had always dreamt of learning how to cook. He stood next to Madge at her kitchen counter, watching as she carefully placed four chicken breasts on a glass chopping board. She handed him a butcher’s knife, bright dots from the fairy lights glinting in its blade.
“First you need to slice the meat into strips,” she instructed, placing her hand over his, puncturing the pale pink meat with the shining blade and slicing through it like butter until a neat strip fell away from the breast.
“Let me have a go,” said Hal eagerly and began to slice.
“Not too fast,” warned Madge. “We don’t want blood with our fajitas.”
“Now you need to cut the peppers on a separate board to the meat,” she instructed, watching his progress carefully. “Hey, you’re a natural!”
Hal hung his head to hide the huge grin he was wearing on his face as he crunched the knife into the peppers and rocked the blade back and forth over them, just like the chefs on TV. Then Madge asked him to hold the chopping board while she scraped his strips of chicken and peppers in to the oil sizzling at the bottom of her huge blackened wok. She shook in a little packet of red powder handing him a wooden spoon.
“Quick, stir!” she ordered.
Thrilled, Hal tossed the steaming mixture with his spoon, engulfed in mouthwatering smells.
“You’re doing really well Chef.” Madge gave his elbow an encouraging squeeze.
“We’ve made so much, you’ll have enough to take some home to your Mammy.”
Later, at home, Hal fell asleep in front of the TV with a warm feeling glowing in his full belly. He woke up to his Mum shaking his shoulder.
“Hal, go to bed love.” She was drenched in the pungent smell of chip fat.
“Mum, I’ve got a surprise for you,” Hal said groggily.
“What?” His Mum rubbed her eyes and yawned noisily.
“It’s something you can eat.”
“Oh Hal, I had my tea at the chippy. Can I have it for breakfast?”
“Okay Mum, but promise you’ll try it.”
His Mum got up and began to steer Hal towards his room. “I promise,” she said.
Hal was up early, waiting for his Mum in the kitchen. He wrapped the leftover chicken mixture into a tortilla and set the table. His Mum appeared in the doorway, her threadbare dressing gown knotted tightly around her skinny waist.
“What’s all this?” she said sitting down and peering at her plate.
“It’s called chicken fajitas. I made it all by myself,” Hal said proudly.
“Blimey.” She looked a bit confused. She picked up the wrap, giving him an expectant smile before sinking her teeth into it and slowly beginning to chew. Hal waited.
“Mmm not bad,” she mumbled with her mouth still full. “Did you make this at school?”
“No, I made it with Madge next door,” Hal winced.
His Mum nearly spat out her mouthful.
“What, her?” She pushed her plate of fajitas away as if it was vermin and lit a cigarette with trembling hands.
Hal’s stomach tightened as he cleared the table and he went to lie on his bed, listening to the sounds of his Mum getting ready for her shift, the long hiss of her shower, the waft of her deodorant spray tickling his nostrils, her cheap shoes clacking down the hallway, the rustle and scrape as she put on her mac.
“Bye Hal!” she shouted. “Don’t go to bed late.”
What do you care, Hal thought as he dug his face into the pillow and fought back tears, breathing heavily until the pillow was hot and wet.
It seemed like hours later when Hal heard a gentle knocking on his door. He could smell the odour of chip fat filling the room. He opened his eyes and there she was, leaning over him. She cupped his face in her palms, wiping the tears from his cheeks with her thumbs, fat teardrops dripping from her nose.
“Hal baby, I am so sorry I left you. So sorry.”
His Mum nestled her face in his hair and they held each other for a long time. Finally she gently pulled away, drying her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Mind if I sleep here tonight?” she asked.
Hall shook his head. Still in her overalls, his Mum slipped under the covers next to him and cuddled him like a baby.
“Can I still eat your food tomorrow?” she mumbled in a childlike voice.
Hal was wide awake now, thinking.
“I’ll make you some more Mum, don’t worry,” he said, stroking her hair.