Making Your Mind Up, page 41
“That’s not fair! Why not?” wailed Nat.
“She’s too busy, rushed off her feet at work. Everyone wants their hair done before Christmas,” said Tyler. “And she’s doing house visits in the evenings as well.”
“Could we just stay with her today?” Ruby pleaded. “It’s Sunday. Amber never works on a Sunday.”
“She can’t do that either.” Raking his fingers through his hair Tyler said bluntly, “Quentin’s taking her to meet his aunt in Oxford.”
So that was that. Amber had been their last hope.
“It’s no use glaring at me,” Tyler told Nat. “I didn’t want this either. But it looks like we’re stuck with each other for the next few days. So we may as well make the best of it.”
“There isn’t any best. We don’t want you looking after us,” said Nat.
“And this is my worst nightmare,” Tyler retorted. “So that makes us even.”
“All this bickering isn’t doing me any good, you know,” said Lottie.
Tyler raised an eyebrow. “Stop doing it then.”
Oh God. The three of them were as bad as each other. Now she knew how the teachers at Oaklea felt when they were called upon to settle a playground spat.
One of the nurses came bustling over. “Lottie, the porters are here to wheel you down for your pyelogram.”
Tyler said, “We’ll leave you to it.”
Ruby shot him a suspicious look. “What’re you going to do with us?”
“Lock you in the garage.”
When they’d left the ward, the nurse said with an indulgent smile, “Mum goes into hospital and Dad doesn’t know what’s hit him. Most of them don’t have the first idea when it comes to taking care of their kids, do they?”
“He’s not their dad,” said Lottie. “He’s my boss.”
“Really? Heavens, lucky old you!” The nurse softened. “And how lovely of him to be looking after your children!”
The porters had arrived to wheel her bed out of the ward. Bracing herself for knocks and judders, Lottie said wearily, “Believe me, he didn’t have a lot of choice.”
“What’s in here? It weighs a ton.” Ask a silly question. Tyler picked up Nat’s schoolbag, unzipped it and found it packed with—what else?—stones.
“It’s stones. Aren’t I allowed to collect stones?” Nat was ostentatiously picking crispy shards of black from the surface of his Marks & Spencer lasagna.
“Absolutely. Am I allowed to ask why?”
“It’s what soldiers do in the army. To make them strong. This is really burned.”
Tyler rose above this slur on his culinary skills. “I call it char grilled.”
“I call it burned.”
“That’s how soldiers eat it.” Burrowing among the muddy stones, Tyler pulled out a mangled, muddy sheet of turquoise paper. “What’s this?”
Nat mumbled, “Letter from school.”
“How long has it been in here?”
“I don’t know. This is so burned.”
Tyler began to read the photocopied letter, issued to all pupils by the school headmistress and so jollily worded that at first he found himself lulled into a false sense of security.
It took a few seconds to realize what it was actually instructing him to do.
“It’s half past eight on Monday night,” Tyler said slowly, “and it says here that all children must bring cakes into school on Tuesday morning for the cake stall.” He looked first at Ruby, then at Nat. “But we don’t have any in the house, and all the shops are shut.”
“You aren’t allowed to buy them from the shop,” said Nat. “You have to make them.”
Oh great. “Ruby? Do you have one of these letters too?”
Tyler exhaled. “Well, that’s something at least.”
“I think I lost mine,” Ruby said helpfully.
“So what happens if you go to school tomorrow without homemade cakes?”
They looked scandalized. “We have to. Or we’ll get in trouble.”
Tyler carried on reading. Everyone, the letter chirpily announced, was expected to attend the Christmas Tree and Cakes Fair on Tuesday evening and enjoy the carols being sung by fifth-grade pupils in their festive Victorian attire.
He turned to Ruby. “What grade are you in?”
She gave him a duh look. “Five.”
This was a learning curve and no mistake. “You’re singing carols tomorrow night?”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll tell them I can’t go.”
“And the festive Victorian attire? Where does that come from?”
“You have to ask your mum and she makes it. But she’s in the hospital,” said Ruby, “so we won’t be going to the Tree and Cakes Fair anyway. So don’t worry about it.”
Tyler looked at her. This was a vertical learning curve.
“Don’t try to make any cakes either,” Nat added. “Because if you did they’d only end up burned.”
* * *
“You made what last night?”
“But why…? Oh my God! The Tree and Cakes Fair. I forgot all about it!” Lottie couldn’t believe it had slipped her mind. “And Ruby’s supposed to be… Oh well, they’ll manage without her.”
“No, it’s OK, we’re going. I know about the festive Victorian attire,” Tyler said drily. “And I’ve tracked down a shop in Cheltenham that rents out costumes.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Lottie protested.
“But it has to be right.”
“This is Oaklea Junior School, not the London Palladium. She can go as a street urchin,” Lottie explained. “Old pair of trousers cut off below the knee to look raggedy. Some shirt buttoned up all wrong, hair messed up, streaks of dirt on her face.”
Relieved, Tyler said, “OK.”
“Don’t forget to take a camera.”
“Oh, and I volunteered to help with selling the Christmas trees.”
“I’ll do that then.”
“You’ll need gardener’s gloves.”
“Why, to stop Nat biting me?”
“They don’t still hate you, do they?”
“More than ever. But that’s OK. I can handle it.”
“What about Liana?”
“She doesn’t hate me.”
“She must be getting a bit fed up.” Lottie did her best to sound concerned.
“Can’t be helped.” Abruptly changing the subject, Tyler pulled the crumpled school letter from his jacket pocket. “Now, it’s Nat’s Christmas play tomorrow night.”
“The Nativity play. He’s playing one of the sheep. That’s easy too,” said Lottie. “Just wrap the sheepskin rug around him and tie it on with a couple belts.”
“He’s been upgraded. Charlie Johnson’s off with the flu, so Nat’s been promoted to chief shepherd. I already checked with one of the other mothers this morning when I dropped them off at school.” Tyler was looking pleased with himself. “Tea towel on head. Big shirt, bare feet, walking stick. No problem.”
Lottie’s eyes prickled with tears. She was going to miss the Nativity play.
“Don’t worry, the head’s videoing it,” said Tyler. “I’m not allowed to go either.”
“You won’t be there?” Lottie couldn’t bear it.
“I’ve been banned by Nat. I have to wait outside the school hall.” Tyler waited. “Of course I’m going to be there. He just won’t know about it, that’s all.”
* * *
When they arrived back at Piper’s Cottage, the mail had been delivered. Ruby, scooping the postcard up off the mat, said, “We did a project at school on Australia. This is Sydney Harbor Bridge.”
Tyler looked over her shoulder. “It is
“Yes it is.”
“No it’s not.”
“Yes it is.”
“Turn it over then. See what it says.”
Ruby turned the card over.
“See?” Tyler pointed to the printed lettering at the bottom. “The Tyne Bridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.”
Annoyed, Ruby said, “How did you know?”
“Because I’m very clever.” He smiled. “Yours was a pretty good guess though. They’re very similar.”
“It’s not fair.” Ruby heaved an irritated sigh. “I wish I knew everything. I can’t wait to be a grown-up and always get everything right.”
Tyler thought of Lottie and Liana and the events of the past few months. “Trust me,” he told Ruby with feeling, “being a grown-up doesn’t mean you get everything right.”
“Do you make mistakes?” Nat looked delighted.
Was he kidding? “Oh yes, I’ve made some big mistakes. Like the time I thought you’d stolen your mom’s clothes while she was swimming in the lake.”
“It wasn’t us,” said Nat.
“Of course it wasn’t you. I know that now. But at the time it was an honest mistake.”
“And when you threw away my blankie.”
“That too.” Tyler nodded in agreement. “And I said I was sorry.”
“Blankies are for babies anyway.” Nat was proud, these days, of his blankie-less state.
“You killed Bernard,” Ruby chimed in before it could sound as if they might be on the verge of forgiving him. Bluntly she added, “That was murder.”
“I know. But I really didn’t mean to kill him. It was an accident.” Tyler shook his head. “I told you, grown-ups still make mistakes.”
“Anyway.” Firmly changing the subject, Ruby held up the postcard. “This is for Mum, from Cressida. Should I read it?”
“You shouldn’t really read other people’s mail,” Tyler pointed out.
“It’s only a postcard. Everyone reads them.”
This was true. “Go on then.”
Ruby cleared her throat importantly and read aloud, “‘Newcastle is perfect. So is Tom. I’ve never been happier in my life. The view from up here on Cloud 9 is spectacular—may not want to come down again! Love, Cress. Psss, hope all’s well with you and Seb.’ Ha, wait until she hears about him.”
“So this man Tom is going to be Cress’s new boyfriend. They’ll be all lovey-dovey.” Nat rolled his eyes.
Lucky them, thought Tyler.
“If Cress hadn’t gone up to see him,” Nat continued, “she’d be looking after us now, instead of you.”
With difficulty, Tyler managed to keep a straight face. “I guess she’s just had a lucky escape. Now, anyone want to give me a hand with dinner?”
Nat looked appalled. “My favorite program’s about to start.”
“The more help I get, the less likely it is to be burned.”
It was Ruby’s turn to heave a sigh. “I suppose I’ll have to help you then. But only for a bit.”
“Thank you.” It was a minor victory, but it felt…God, it felt great. When Nat had raced off to watch TV, Tyler nodded at the postcard in Ruby’s hand and said easily, “By the way, that bit at the end. It’s P.S., not Psss.”
Ruby bristled. “I knew that.”
“Hey, of course you did.” She looked so much like Lottie when she was defending herself. “In fact, I prefer Psss,” said Tyler. “It sounds like a secret you’re whispering to someone. Much better than boring old P.S.”
Ruby almost, almost smiled. She nodded confidently. “Me too.”
* * *
Having skipped down the steps and raced across the playground to where the Christmas trees were being sold, Ruby hovered to one side for a few seconds before blurting out, “Did you see me?”
Her breath hung in misty clouds in the freezing night air, and she was wearing her street urchin outfit.
“I saw you. And heard you. We all did.” Tyler indicated the other helpers before untying the blue sweater from around his waist. “You did great. Now, why don’t you put this on before you catch pneumonia?”
“It’s yours.” Ruby eyed the sweater with alarm, as if he’d offered her one decorated with live cockroaches.
“But you left your coat at home, remember? And now you’re cold. No, don’t want it? OK, just put it over there on the wall.”
Three minutes later, Ruby said, “Did you hear me doing my solo verse in ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’?”
“Are you kidding? Of course I heard it. I was the one clapping and whistling the loudest.” Tyler paused. “Actually, better not tell Lottie I was doing that. She might think sticking your fingers in your mouth and whistling is the kind of crass thing only a dumb American would do.”
Ruby looked envious. “I’ve never been able to whistle like that. With my fingers.”
“Oh well, I can teach you how to do that. Learned all about whistling when I worked on a cattle ranch in Wyoming.” Someone came up at that point to choose one of the Christmas trees. By the time Tyler had finished dealing with them, Ruby had wandered over to chat with her friends around the hot chocolate stand, but she was wearing his sweater.
A small concession, but maybe—maybe—a start.
* * *
“I can’t get my stupid tea towel on straight! It keeps going sideways and falling over my eye!”
“OK, OK, don’t panic. I’ll sort it out.”
“I’m going to be late.” Nat’s voice rose. “It’s starting now.”
“Better keep still then.” Crouching in front of him in the parking lot, Tyler whipped off the tea towel and headband and started all over again while Nat hopped impatiently from foot to foot. Having visited Lottie in the hospital and leaving plenty of time for the journey to school, they hadn’t allowed for a truck jackknifing across the A46, causing a twenty-minute delay and so much agitation on Nat’s part it was a wonder he hadn’t exploded through the roof of the car.
“There, all done. You look terrific.” Tyler patted him on the shoulder. “Go on in, it’s showtime.”
Nat gazed up at him. “Where will you be?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll wait in the car.”
After a moment’s hesitation Nat said, “Is it true that you worked on a cattle ranch, like a real cowboy?”
“Of course it’s true.” So Ruby had told him about that. “I even learned how to use a lasso.”
“And whistle really loudly with your fingers in your mouth.” Nat paused, blinked. “You can come in and watch, if you want.”
Tyler was careful not to react. But inside he was marveling that being invited to watch a Nativity play could feel like winning the lottery. Aloud he said, “Really? You’re sure you don’t mind?”
Clearly itching to get inside, Nat shrugged. “You can, if you like.”
“Thanks.” As Nat turned to leave, Tyler called after him, “If it’s a good show, am I allowed to whistle at the end?”
It was too dark to be able to tell for sure, but he was fairly certain Nat was smiling as he yelled back, “You can, if you like.”
* * *
Lottie almost had a relapse there and then when her visitors made their way onto the ward on Friday afternoon and she saw that Nat was holding Tyler’s hand.
When Nat grinned and waved at her she nearly had another one. “Oh my God, I didn’t even know your tooth was loose!”
“It wathn’t. I fell over in the playground during morning break and my tooth broke in half.” Intensely proud of his gap, Nat wiggled the end of his tongue through it. “And it hurt like anything, tho Mith Batson called your thell phone and Tyler anthwered and came and picked me up and took me to the dentitht. And the dentitht gave me a huge injection and that really hurt, but I wath brave and then he pulle
“Oh, Nat!” Lottie hugged him before anxiously searching his face for signs of emotional trauma. “And I wasn’t there!”
“Mum, you’re choking me. My mouth wath all numb and flubbery afterward. It wath cool! And then I went back to thcool even though there wath blood on my shirt.” This had evidently been a badge of honor. “And Tyler gave me a pound for being brave at the dentitht. And he’th taking uth ithe-thkating tomorrow, to an ithethkating rink in Brithtol.”
“Good grief.” Lottie was busy kissing Ruby and stroking her hair.
“And I heard Miss Batson talking to Tyler when we went to pick up Nat this afternoon,” Ruby chimed in. “She was laughing and telling him what a good job he was doing, looking after us.”
Nat grinned at Tyler. “I thaw that too. She looked ath if the wanted to kith you.”
Lottie blinked. This was truly mind-boggling stuff.
“If Miss Batson even tried to come near me,” Tyler warned, “I’d stick my fingers in my mouth and whistle so hard her eardrums would burst.”
“That’th what I’m going to do when the girlth try to kith me,” said Nat.
“Tell Mum the other thing,” Ruby prompted Tyler.
“What other thing?” Lottie was beginning to feel quite light-headed.
Tyler’s dark eyes glittered with amusement. “OK, Miss Batson told me how nice it was to see your kids so happy now, because you’d gotten yourself involved with a man not so long ago who’d caused all kinds of problems.” Modestly he added, “She said thank goodness you’d come to your senses and that I was clearly a much better choice. With which sentiment I naturally agreed.”
“And that’th when I told her,” Nat lisped exultantly. “I thaid Tyler wath the one we’d hated because he’d been tho horrible to uth!”
For the first time Lottie was glad she was confined to her hospital bed. Picturing Miss Batson’s formidable face, she murmured faintly, “Then what?”
Tyler said, “Miss Batson leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘Do you know, if I weren’t a teacher I’d suggest boiling them in oil.’”
The world was becoming more surreal by the minute. It was mad enough that Nat and Ruby were on speaking terms with Tyler, but getting to grips with the idea that Miss Batson might actually be human…
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