‘The third lesson’s about…’ he hesitated. ‘Kindness.’
‘I thought it was about lava.’
‘Oh, yes. We’ll cover lava too, briefly.’
There had been two days of a rubbed out world, but out of the window you could see grass poking its stiff spikes through the soft ice, pulling it apart to make space for itself.
‘Snow can freeze your glove,’ I said, ‘then your fingers get cold, then you cry.’
‘And your glove stays stiff.’
‘Till it gets warm.’
‘Then it’s dry.’
Before – yesterday, or whenever in the past it was – you could see footprints in the garden: first a single line, then overlapping circles, then a jumble of prints. But overnight they’d grown from feet to dinner plate sized holes, as if a monster had trodden carefully in our footsteps while we slept, making exagerated, slow movements with a grimace on its face. Its head would practically reach the bedroom windowsills.
‘Can monsters see in the upstairs windows?’ I said.
‘No. They tend to lurk around outskirts, around edges, looking in. They don’t get up close to us, because it makes them sad.’
‘Sad for what they don’t have.’
‘They can come in if they want.’
‘Come and look at their footprints.’
‘Oh, they’re there in the garden? I’ll look later, when you’re at school.’
‘I don’t like school. Can I have all my lessons with you?’ Old school had been fine – a jumble of warmth, like splashes of paint on paper. New school was black lines. Other children knew how to play. I didn’t know what to do, how to effortlessly seem carefree and shout out game suggestions like I’d been born knowing how to do it.
‘No, just the first ones of the day. Now, kindness.’
‘I am kind.’
‘Good. Keep it that way. What I wanted to say to you was that kindness is the most important quality in a person. Your mother is kind.’
‘Sometimes she’s cross.’
‘I said she’s kind, not that she’s Jesus.’
‘A very kind person who might not have existed.’
‘Sort of. Don’t worry too much about being clever, or funny, or cool, or any of those things. It doesn’t really matter. Just be kind. And what I mean by that is, assume the best, don’t lose your temper, be gentle.’
The fourth finger of his right hand was tapping on the wooden bedside table, making the water in his glass judder the way that old lady’s skin had juddered when the bus went over the speed bumps. The drawer was open the width of a not-meant smile, and he glanced at the smile once then twice. There was a twist of white paper in there, perhaps concealing sweets, and the edge of a book.
‘Sort of.’ He frowned. ‘Sort of not. I can’t really think what the difference between cool and Jesus is right now, but I know there is one, I think they are probably opposites in a way I can’t explain or think of clearly.’
‘It’s just that he might be there but he’s not really,’ I suggested, ‘so there’s no point in worrying about him.’
‘That has nailed their similarity.’ His smile looked shark-like. You think of smiles moving upwards, pulled by invisible strings, but I felt I could see the strings pulling his lips sideways.
‘Cool?’ I said and shrugged.
‘It’s seeming like you don’t care,’ he said.
‘The opposite of kind.’
‘Precisely. That’s your mother calling you.’
I hadn’t heard her.
‘Goodbye. Keep your mittens dry.’
‘Keep your mittens dry!’ Then, ‘lava!’ I reminded him.
He hit his forehead with the palm of his hand; ‘dah! Tomorrow!’
As I left the room his hand moved towards the drawer, his fingers shaking just slightly.