By Henry Tydeman
The other children had already finished their tea and left the table. Michael sat with his short legs hanging over the edge of the chair, eating quietly, whilst his mother was leaning against the wall and speaking to her friend. Michael was concentrating on his mashed potato, and only heard snippets of their conversation. He was eight, and worked hard at school, but still the world of grown-up conversation was more or less impenetrable to him, and he found it rather tedious. He’d been running about in the garden all morning with Anne’s children, and after all that shouting and kicking and jumping he was quite pleased that the others had left him alone. He’d be back out there with them soon of course but he liked moments like this too, when the playing carried on without him and he could sit by himself like a tired old man at a Christmas party. It meant that he could think. If only the parents weren’t being so loud.
He did like Anne though. The food she cooked for them was definitely his favourite because she always put the mashed potato in the middle of the plate with the beans round the edges and, most importantly, a small flag in the potato so the whole thing looked exactly like a castle with a moat. Michael had learned about castles and moats at school, and had even been to visit one or two. It was so clever, he thought, what Anne did, and he told his mother each time how much he liked it. He couldn’t understand why more people didn’t make tea like Anne did. He’d asked his mother if she could, but she had told him that they didn’t have any little flags at home. He ate another forkful of potato and watched as the final parts of the castle walls became submerged by bean juice. He imagined that he was a giant, no, that he was God, turning castles that had stood for hundreds of years to rubble, all-powerful. He had heard about God, at school and in church, and had formed in his mind a clear picture of Him: an old man with white robes and a long white beard, and, like Father Christmas, always kind to children. Strong and brave like a warrior when he needed to be. Michael often prayed, just before falling asleep at night. A week ago he’d told God that Angela was his best friend at school, and asked Him if He could make sure they were able to sit together the next day on the coach (the school had arranged a trip to the theatre). In the end Angela had sat with her other friends, quite close to Michael, a couple of rows back on the other side, and he could clearly see her if he turned round. That night Michael thanked God for trying, and was very understanding. He didn’t expect Him to get everything absolutely right; no one was that good.
Michael was finishing up his baked beans, and the parents’ conversation was going on and on. A thought came to him then, something he remembered from the last time he was at Sunday School. At the time he’d listened to what the teacher said and found it incredible, exciting, not quite totally believable. He needed confirmation from his mother, he needed to check that what they’d told him was right. If it was, well, then that would really be something.
“Mummy,” he said, after waiting for a gap in their conversation. He swivelled round and looked at her. She was wearing black trousers and a brown jumper with a pattern on the front.
Anne was looking at him too, with wide, kind eyes. Michael could tell that whatever they’d been talking about just then had been forgotten the moment he spoke, gone like steam from a kettle into the air and nothingness. He slid off his chair and stood facing his mother.
“What is it?”
He made sure to put on his serious voice.
“At Sunday School the teacher told us that in Heaven we can be anything we like. Is that right?”
His mother and Anne looked at each other then, just for a second. Michael thought that perhaps something had been communicated between them that he didn’t understand. He didn’t like that. His mother was looking at him again, and still hadn’t answered his question.
“Can I be anything I like in Heaven, Mummy?”
He noticed Anne turn away from them, and she was moving plates about near the sink.
“Yes, that’s right,” his mother said. She smiled at him.
Michael felt a rush of excitement. He hadn’t allowed himself to believe it before, not fully, it really had seemed too good to be true. He had wanted to make sure of it, and the best way of doing that was to ask his mother. She always told him the truth about everything. His little mind was whirring with ideas. Perhaps his mother asked him something then about his lunch, his mashed potatoes and the fort with the flag, but perhaps she didn’t.
“So I can be an animal then? If I want to be one. I can be a lion?”
She was still leaning against the wall, a little stiffly. Anne was running the taps.
“Yes, you can. If you like.”
Then he remembered something else.
“And in Heaven do you get to live forever? That’s what they said at Sunday School.”
“Of course you do.” She said it quickly and looked away from him, moving off the wall.
“Wow.” So it was all true.
Anne spoke from by the sink:
“How was your lunch Michael? Did you like the fort? I know you normally like the fort.”
Michael hardly heard. There was a problem. He frowned.
“But… do I only get to choose once?”
“What do you mean, my darling?”
Michael tried to explain.
“Do I only get to choose what I want to be once? I don’t think I want to be a lion forever. It would get boring. Can I change into something else when I like? I want to be a…” He paused for a moment and remembered his favourite television program. “I want to be a Dalek too. That would be amazing! Can I change from a lion to a Dalek, Mummy? Will that be OK, if I change?”
He spoke earnestly, and when he’d finished and was looking up at his mother his brow was still furrowed and she saw, as she often did, that he needed her more than anything, and she could not imagine him growing up. He had bean juice on his chin and on his T-shirt too. He was such a serious little boy.
“Yes, Michael,” she replied slowly. “You can be as many different things as you like.”
“Wow…” He was so pleased to hear it. There were so many other creatures and animals that he’d like to be… and he could be all of them. Every single one. He’d have to make a list, so that he didn’t forget any of them. As he daydreamed and imagined how much fun Heaven would be, his mother knelt down in front of him with a napkin and wiped away the bean juice from his chin. He stared forwards into a sort of cloudy world where animals and monsters roamed about in the mist, making friends and having fun, forever and ever, whilst his mother cleaned his face and Anne carried on washing the dirty plates.
Michael checked his watch. He didn’t have much time. His mother was speaking to him from across the table, as she carefully cut a piece of chicken into two using her knife and fork. He was half-listening at best, not to the words and the things she told him but just for when the sound of her voice would stop, so that he could interrupt and bring things to a close. It was always the way it had to be, otherwise she’d go on talking forever and ever, and Michael had promised he’d be home by three to help Sam with the Christmas tree. They’d had a chicken pie with peas; his mother had made it herself, as she always did, quietly mixing together the flower and the butter for the pastry before Michael arrived and whilst the chicken roasted in the oven. When it was done she carved it and spooned the chunks into the pastry dish, crimping the edges with her aging fingers. She’d always made pies, as far back as Michael could remember. He looked at her hands, an old woman’s hands, lined and a little saggy, but steady too, under her control. There was no sign of them shaking. She’d finished all her peas.
She was chewing on a piece of chicken then and had stopped speaking for a moment. She looked at him whilst she did, like an owl looks at things with intent. Michael saw his chance.
“Well that was lovely, Mum,” he said, and wiped the edges of his mouth with his napkin to emphasise the point. “I’ll need to be getting back soon. I told Sam we could put up the Christmas tree together this afternoon. He’s very excited.”
She finished her mouthful and smiled.
“Of course, my dear.” She let out a small sigh and put down her cutlery. “You used to love putting up the tree. Do you remember?”
She liked to talk about the past with him, about his childhood. Michael didn’t, he had too many other things going on, it felt like an indulgence, but he was aware that it was probably natural, a woman of his mother’s age, reflecting, remembering. She had the time to do it, it seemed to make her happy in a roundabout sort of way. And she was right – he had loved Christmas, and the tree and all the presents, and though he wasn’t usually one for nostalgia, he heard in Sam’s breathless, partially coherent ramblings about Father Christmas and the reindeer, the same bursting, almost painful excitement that he’d once known. He saw in his son’s eyes when he spoke that there really was nothing in the world that thrilled him like the thought of the stocking at the foot of his bed, overflowing with carefully wrapped gifts. To Sam, of course, it was real magic, that was the thing, not television magic or cinema magic, but real magic, a once a year flash of it that proved there was so much more to life than school and rainy days. And he believed in it with all the unshakeable certainty of a religious fanatic, just as Michael had. He remembered the certainty more than anything. He kept each of Sam’s letters to Father Christmas, folded up in a drawer in his bedroom, each year the handwriting a little neater, the tone a little more formal. Very occasionally, Michael would get them out and read them again, when he was alone in the house. He hoped that Sam would go on writing them forever.
“Yes, I remember, Mum.” He really didn’t have the time for reminiscing. It was half past two already. But she looked at him as if she expected something more, and so he added wistfully, “Good times.”
They sat in silence then.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” his mother said. “You remember my friend Anne?”
This worried Michael. The way she’d changed the subject in an instant was a sign that she had something new she wanted to talk about, something that warranted another half hour of discussion. He had to cut her off. The swifter the better at this stage. Besides, no, he didn’t remember Anne.
“No, I don’t think so,” he answered, very deliberately standing up and tucking his chair in afterwards like school children are taught to do. “I need to go now, Mum. We’re putting up the tree this afternoon. I can’t be late.”
She remained seated.
“She was my friend, back when you were little. We used to go round there for lunch all the time in the summer holidays. You must remember! You used to play with her children.”
Michael looked down at his mother. She had sounded almost hurt, as if it were somehow flippant of him not to remember, or at least not to say that he remembered. That would probably have been enough for her. He looked up at the ceiling for a moment and pretended that he was trying hard to recall Anne and her children. He put his right hand in his pocket and held onto his car keys.
“I’m sorry Mum, but I really don’t. There were lots of other children I used to play with. I don’t remember them all I’m afraid.” He really didn’t want to know why she’d asked, and he stepped away from the table, but he didn’t like the way he was leaving things. She was gazing out through the big glass window at the back garden where the flowers were still in the cold bright sun. He spoke into the silence.
“Why d’you ask?”
A second or two went by, and she went on looking through the glass, and Michael wondered how long she had left to live. He didn’t like to think of her dying, and he knew that it would leave a great hole in his heart. But she was well, perfectly well, for the time being. She might still go on for decades. There was nothing to worry about.
She stood up then and answered him.
By the front door she spoke again, it seemed almost to herself, distractedly.
“I’m sure I saw her the other day. Anne. Near the bank. Haven’t seen her for years. I’m sure it was her.”
Michael had opened the door as she was speaking, the chill from the street instant, icy air like another world.
“Alright, Mum, well I’ll see you next weekend. Thanks for lunch!”
She wasn’t listening.
“She used to put a little flag in your mashed potato, like it was a little castle on a hill. You used to love that Michael!”
He drove home to Sam, who charged about happily like a puppy in the living room. And after what his mother had said at the end he thought that he did remember something. Not Anne, or any of her children, certainly not them. But the mashed potato and the fort, and the baked beans for the moat; all of that came back to him quite clearly, all the joy and the wonder. Isn’t memory a strange thing! Sam was standing by the tree, looking up into the branches with a line of silver tinsel in his hand. He had a serious look on his face. Michael rose from the armchair where he’d been resting, so that they could wrap the tinsel around the tree together.
Henry is an English tutor and a musician. In 2021 his short story ‘The Pigeons’ was shortlisted in the Wild Hunt Magazine prize, and another of his stories was chosen for publication in the Manchester Review. He has written about politics and the arts for Huffington Post and Reaction. He is a songwriter too, and one half of the Brighton-based musical duo ‘Barbara’ who have been supported by BBC Introducing.