He sat at the back, feeling like this was worse than story time at school. At least there was a carpet and the teacher didn’t try to do different, terrible voices. At least you saw her face. This time the changing voice of many accents was hidden. It sounded like a man but how could you be certain if he or she was behind the striped curtain all the time? As it went on, the voices got higher and louder. Matthew looked at the heads in front of him. They were moving more and more now. Everyone was sick and tired.
There was one head he looked at most – two plaits with white and pink bobbles at each end. He wanted to touch them to see if they were the sweets they made him think of.
The shrieking and banging faded out and everyone turned to leave. Matthew was slower to get up. Maybe because he had changed his speed ages ago to match mum’s, or maybe he was still thinking about those bobbles. He walked backwards towards the door, searching. Then all of a sudden she was in front of him,
“I know you.”
He went red and opened and closed his mouth.
“I’m in the other class. I saw you hiding in the coats last week. Why were you doing that?”
Her eyes widened,
“Had you been stood out?!”
He found his voice but it squeaked like the puppeteer,
“Maybe. Who are you?”
She shrugged and tossed her plaits,
“Have you got squashies at the end of your hair?”
“Duh, no. They’re hard. Squeeze them,”
She lifted one ponytail up towards him. He squeezed and nodded, slightly disappointed.
“All the grown-ups are here now. We’d best go.”
When they followed all the shuffling children to the car park outside Matthew realised that Judy was still beside him. He leant against the wall, searching for his mum’s car. It should have been in the first space. She had a special badge for that. But she wasn’t there. As the cars and parents came and went with mini versions of themselves and the car park was empty again, Matthew looked at the Mary Janes beside his trainers,
“You haven’t been picked up either.”
“I’m walking home. I always do.”
“So why didn’t you leave then?”
“I was waiting for your mum with you.”
Matthew tried to keep the edges of his mouth down. No-one had ever stayed with him before. He stepped out and looked both ways,
“Well. Doesn’t look like she’s coming. She must have got the time mixed up.”
He turned his face away to press the tears back in and take a big breath. He was going to have to walk home. He’d never done that by himself before. Mum always drove him back.
It had started to rain. He looked down at the bag of pick n mix they’d all been given. The white paper was turning see through. He lifted it up,
“Let’s have one now.”
They popped one in their mouths and chewed. The sugary taste was helping everything.
“Did you like the Punch and Judy show? You must feel famous, hearing them use your name like that.”
Judy tilted her head,
“I would have liked it better if it had been called ‘Judy and Punch’. Why does the boy’s name always come first – ‘Adam and Eve’, ‘Charles and Diana’, ‘Mickey and Minnie ’…”
Matthew did not have an answer. He squared his shoulders,
“I’m going to walk home now.”
“Where do you live?”
Judy grabbed his hand and squealed,
“So do I!”
“The one near the newsagents. How about you?”
“The one near the swings.”
“Well let’s go then!”
One of the organisers opened and closed the heavy hall doors and didn’t see them.
Judy popped another squashie in her mouth and pulled at his hand,
“Coming? I love the swings!”
When they were half-way home Matthew spied mum’s car and her anxious face. She saw him and slowed beside them, winding her window down,
“Matt! I thought it was over at four. You walked all this way by yourself!”
Judy leant forward,
“Not by himself,”
She squeezed his clammy hand,
“He has me now.”