The letter-box rattled uselessly, trapping Tobey’s long fingers as he peered helplessly through the flap. From the outside, he could see the broad blue empty sea of the carpet and the ornate legs of the table which bore the clunky black plastic of the landline and an array of yellow post-it notes. The unnatural tidiness of the house irked him all the more for being out of reach.
Straightening up and hitting his head on the hanging basket, Tobey paced around the house. He tried the ground-floor windows, feeling in case, by chance, one of them might have been left open, but to no avail. Cautiously, he slid his schoolbag, hastily repaired at lunch with duct tape borrowed from D.T, from his back and left it by the porch before heading over to the gate into the back garden. Perhaps one of the windows round the back was unlocked? He took a deep breath and launched himself at the gate, attempting to scale it.
“Tobey Merritt! Come in, come in,” called a shrill female voice somewhere to his left. He turned round sheepishly to find Mrs Waters from next door watching him, an amused expression on her plump face and a cigarette in one scarlet-nailed hand. “I thought you were a burglar.”
Picking up his rucksack again, he glumly crossed the drive to where she was standing, cringing inwardly. “Pretty inept burglar,” he muttered, kicking the ground to vent his frustration. She pretended not to notice.
“My pilates class is at five but you’re welcome to sit here and have a cup of tea with me. Perhaps your mum will be back by the time I need to go.”
Smiling in what was clearly an attempt to be friendly, she opened the door and Tobey followed her meekly into the house. Built to a similar design to his own, the family inside had made it so different as to be unrecognisable. The brightly garish paper on the walls hurt Tobey’s eyes and the untidiness and faint smell of dog made him feel slightly sick. Mutely, he settled himself in a chair at the cluttered kitchen table and accepted her offer of a cup of tea with a nod.
For a few moments, they sat there in silence broken only by the whistling of the old-fashioned kettle. Then she spoke as she poured “How’s Bee getting on at uni? The house is so quiet without Jessica. How are you all coping?”
Tobey thought of Jessica, who had sat next to him in the orchestra for a few years. Loud and popular, especially with the boys on the school football team, he could well believe that without her, the house was quiet. He had himself rather enjoyed the respite from her loud music blaring into his bedroom, all girl bands who, in his opinion at least, couldn’t actually sing.
“Of course she really deserves her gap year, she worked so hard to get into Oxford, but even so…”
Tobey sipped his tea, burning the tip of his tongue. He had already heard more than enough about Jessica and Oxford to last him several lifetimes in the few short weeks since the exam results were published. “Mum said the same-about the house being quiet, that is- when Bee left. She’s just starting her second year now, seems to be enjoying it.”
“Well, we rarely see or hear anything from her. She’s always out with Blake, her boyfriend, going drinking with her roommates, etc.”
“How wonderful to be young!” The expression on her face was wistful, as if she was remembering her own youth.
Tobey wrinkled his nose, wondering if he was missing the point somewhere. He stared into the mess on the kitchen table instead of meeting her eye.
“Tell your ma not to worry too much about Bee, no news is good news.” She distractedly flicked ash into a tea stained mug in the middle of the table, glancing at a clock that wouldn’t have looked too out of place in a Salvador Dali exhibition. “I’m thinking of taking in lodgers. I hate silence.”
He nodded sympathetically, wondering what he was supposed to say. The sky outside the window was rather grey and there didn’t seem much hope that his mother would be home in the near future.
As if reading his mind, Mrs Waters stood to her feet, picking up a small bag on the floor and swinging it over her shoulder. “I’m sorry, but I need to get going before I miss my class, do you have any friends you can stay with until your ma gets in?”
Tobey almost laughed at the ridiculousness of that question. Him, friends? Of course he didn’t have any friends. But involuntarily, his mind turned to the pair in the woods, Cosmodius and Aramis. A slow smile played with the corner of his mouth at the excuse to go and see more of them. “Yes,” he said, his mood brighter than it had been all day. “I think I might.”