PENNY Marks glanced round as the front door slammed shut. ‘Is that you, Danny. Don’t forget to wipe your feet … Oh dear. Too late.’ Her son was standing in the kitchen doorway, shedding mud and left-over leaves onto the clean, white tiles.
‘Never mind. Perhaps next time. How was chess club? Have you got much homework?’
‘Just some French. But it doesn’t have to be in until Friday. The teachers are winding down for Christmas.’ He glanced back into the hallway. ‘I said Simon could come to dinner.’
‘He’s new this term. He’s in my maths set. And chess club. Can I tell him it’s OK?’
‘Yes, I suppose so.’ She turned the potatoes down to simmer. ‘It’s nothing special. Just sausage and mash. But he’s welcome to join us. And there’s apple crumble for after.’
‘Of course. ‘I’ll make some hot chocolate.’
Great!’ Danny turned and called along the hallway. ‘Mum says you’re invited to dinner. She’s making hot chocolate.’
Penny prepared her most welcoming smile and stepped forward hoping to make a good impression. After all, peer approval is everything when you’re fourteen. She watched Danny dump his bag on the floor then turn to introduce the friend at his side.
‘Mum, this is Simon. But we all call him Sigh. Sigh, this is my mum.’
Penny fought not to react. Danny was standing alone, indicating the empty air. Her mind tumbled into overdrive. What on earth? Never in all the years had Danny even hinted at having an imaginary friend. Was this a wind up? She watched a hint of doubt flash across her son’s face. She needed to respond. But she was not at all sure how to do so. Clearly negativity was not an option:
‘Hi, Simon. Danny, why don’t you take Simon up to your room and I’ll bring you both hot chocolate? And then you can come back down and make yourselves useful. You can fix the star on the top of the tree. Your dad’s not home until later and you’re probably man enough by now to take over the responsibility. Simon can help hold the ladder.’
OK, now would have been the moment when Danny ought to have collapsed with laughter and admit he was having her on. But he didn’t do that. He just jostled nobody back into the hall and on up the stairs, chatting excitedly about something or other, pausing once or twice for a response that only he could hear. Penny pulled out a chair and sat down. She considered phoning Jeff then remembered he’d be at Evensong and would probably not take kindly to being interrupted to discuss his son’s non-existent new friend. She could try phoning Jessica, but she’d probably be away doing end-of-term things with her flatmates and not in the least interested in her youngest brother’s new friend, imaginary or otherwise. She resolved to handle this one step at a time, fetched mugs, chocolate powder, put some milk on to boil and waited. She was startled from mindlessness by a crash from upstairs. It sounded serious. Metal and glass. She readied herself but Danny yelled down to say nothing was broken and hurry up with the chocolate.
She checked the sausages, turned off the potatoes and carried two mugs up to Danny’s room which was empty. She put the mugs down on the bedside table but as she did so she noticed a large dark patch on the duvet cover. She touched it. Her fingers came away smeared red. It was blood. It smelled like blood. She panicked:
‘Danny, where are you?’ she yelled. ‘What’s happened?’
‘We’re in the bathroom. Simon’s having a nosebleed.’
She hurried to the bathroom. Danny was sitting on the side of the bath holding a towel. The pink hand towel. It was covered in way too much blood for this to be a simple nosebleed.
‘Nothing to worry about, mum. Simon often has nosebleeds. It’s why he’s so pale. He has to take iron tablets, so he doesn’t get anaemic.’
Right. Where to start? ‘Danny, stand up, I …’
Danny jumped to his feet. Handed the towel to his friend. It fell to the floor.
‘Danny, where did that blood come from?’
‘Out of Simon’s nose. But it’s stopped now.’
Penny looked at her son. He seemed to be intact. There was a small blot of blood on his cuff and a faint smear on the back of his hand. But where had it come from? She was aware that an imaginary friend would not be able to bleed that much. Or at all. She scanned the space around the fallen towel and noticed more blood in the toilet. A lot more blood.
‘Danny, if you’ve got something wrong with you, you need to tell me. We can go get you checked out at A&E.’
‘Why do you think I’ve got something wrong with me?’
‘There’s blood in the toilet.’
‘That’s because Simon thought it best that he dripped in there and not on the floor.’
‘Danny, I … I think … I think Simon’s parents ought to be told straight away. He’s lost a lot of blood. And I …’
‘He’s already phoned. His dad’s on his way over.’ He turned. ‘OK, Sigh. You go downstairs and wait for him. I’ll collect up your things. We can do this tomorrow instead. When you’ve properly clotted.’ He laughed then turned his attention back to his mother. ‘Don’t worry, mum. We were all shit-scared when it first happened at school … but Simon’s used to it.’ Again, he turned towards the empty air. ‘Phone me later, OK?’ He watched nobody leave the bathroom, followed nobody onto the landing and hurried to his room. Reappeared moments later, carrying nothing and loped downstairs, calling as he went. ‘Is that your dad? … OK, say hi from me. See you tomorrow in maths.’
Penny heard the front door open, rounded the turn in the staircase just in time to see Danny wave then close the door. She grabbed her phone and rang Jeff, left a hurried voice mail: ‘Come home immediately. It’s Danny.’ Then hurried to join Danny in the kitchen. He was checking out the sausages. She watched him. He didn’t appear to be physically compromised in any way. Perhaps he was bleeding internally. ‘Danny, this has to stop!’
‘What has to stop?’
‘Tell me what happened. Tell me about the blood.’
He looked at her. Confused. ‘Simon had a nosebleed.’
‘No! You have to stop with all this nosebleed nonsense. Where did that blood come from? It’s not normal. Have you got a pain anywhere? And why are you doing this … this pretend friend thing? You have proper friends. Loads of them. You don’t have to make friends up.’
‘Make friends up? Mum, have you been drinking? How long ‘til dinner. I’m really starving.’ He paused. ‘I’m st-st-starving … thirsty.’ He went to the sink, took a mug from the drainer and filled it with water, took a mouthful. Then another. Turned to look at his mother but somehow his eyes seemed to focus straight ahead and beyond her. She stepped over and waved her hand in front of his face. But his eyes were fixed, unable to move. She watched his arms go limp, the mug of water crash to the floor, bounce once and then shatter, spilling its bloodied contents across the tiles. Danny’s fingers were twitching. Reflex twitching. She grabbed his hand to calm them but there didn’t seem to be anything to hold onto. She tried several times. ‘Danny, what’s happening to you?’
‘Same as always,’ said Danny, but his voice was a long way away and becoming younger. Much, much younger. ‘Sorry, mummy.’
She watched him standing there. Untouchable. Time passed. She wasn’t sure how much time. Then she heard the front door slam shut. She spun round as Jeff stepped into the kitchen.
‘Penny, what on earth’s going on?’
Penny wrung her hands. ‘Danny brought his friend, Simon, he brought him home for sausage and mash. But Simon had a really bad nosebleed. There was blood everywhere. But it couldn’t have been Simon’s. So it must have been Danny’s blood and there was so much of it. We have to take him to A&E. Maybe that same doctor will be there. He must be bleeding internally. He doesn’t look right.’ She turned to her son to reassure him but he wasn’t there. She leapt over and stared into the sink, felt Jeff’s hands close round her arms.
‘Penny, love, try and calm down.’
‘But the blood couldn’t have been Simon’s because Simon wasn’t real.’
‘Sweetheart, neither is Danny. He’s gone.’ He eased her towards a chair and encouraged her to sit down. ‘I should have realised what day it was. Penny try and remember. It’s very sad, but not remembering is worse. Making all this up to replace the memories. You have to fight it. It wasn’t your fault. The crash. The other driver was drunk. He skipped the light. Hit you broadside. Killed himself and our boy. Ten years ago today.’
Penny looked at her husband. Back at the sink. Then she closed her eyes. Let herself remember. The noise was sudden and terrible: glass and metal. A hub cap rolling across the bonnet. Danny. The pain in her neck as she forced herself round. His car seat was crushed. And he was inside it. His eyes were open, unfocused, looking straight ahead. The ambulance came. It smelled of plastic and disinfectant. There was a piece of tinsel hanging along the strip light. One of the paramedics checked her over while the other two tried to help Danny. He was very still, apart from his fingers. His fingers were twitching. There was more tinsel at the hospital and a large, illuminated Santa in the A&E reception. They left her waiting in a cluttered room. But not for long. A doctor and a nurse came to speak to her. Their faces were sad. Very sorry, Mrs Marks, but Danny’s injuries were too severe. Internal bleeding. He would have been unconscious immediately. Wouldn’t have felt anything. Would she like to see him? Sit with him until Mr Marks arrived. Was there anyone else they could contact?
She looked up. ‘But, Jeff, he was so real. He’d been to chess club. With Simon.’
He was our precious boy, Penny, and we loved him. But we have a son and a daughter that we’re proud of. And they’ll be home this weekend to eat us out of house and home. We’ll phone the doctor and ask him to prescribe some …’ He was interrupted by the doorbell echoing along the hallway. ‘Who the hell is that? Stay here I’ll go and see.’
Penny followed him into the hallway and stood back as he pulled open the front door. A car was parked across the drive, its engine running. A boy was standing in the porch. He was wearing a school blazer, striking against his pale complexion. He offered Jeff a neatly folded pink towel.
‘Hi, I accidentally took this home with me. Mum said she’d wash it, but it seems to be perfectly clean and I thought Mrs Marks might wonder what had happened to it.’ He waved at Penny then started to back out of the porch. ‘I’d better hurry. Dad wants his dinner. Tell Danny I’ll see him tomorrow in maths.’