He turned around and she was gone.
“Mummy!” he screamed after the figure that was rapidly disappearing across the crowded playground.
Mrs Fillary carried on walking as if she was deaf.
He didn’t understand why she couldn’t hear him. “Muuuum-eeeeeeeeeee!” he yelled at the top of his voice.
Mrs Fillary reached the school gates on the far side of the playground and turned right into Canberra Road, heading for home. She never looked back.
“Muuuuuuum-eeeeeeeeeeee!” he cried as he ran across the playground after her. His eyes filled with tears, blinding him.
A hundred young heads swivelled round and watched him with amusement.
He caught up with her and grabbed the back of her long brown woollen coat. “Mummy, mummy, mummy!”
She stopped and turned. She was smiling down at him. He couldn’t believe it. She seemed amused by his behaviour.
“Mummy, mummy, mummy.” He pushed his face into the rough folds of her coat. He was sobbing, gasping, gulping in air, hysterical. At that moment he hated her.
She took his hand and dragged him gently back into the playground. She took out a handkerchief and knelt down and dabbed his eyes and wiped the dusty tearstains from his face. The damp linen handkerchief felt rough on his skin. She was hurting him. She handed him the damp handkerchief. “Here, darling, blow your nose.”
He did as he was told. “Don’t go, mummy, please don’t go.”
She sighed. “I’ll wait until the bell goes.”
“Don’t leave me!”
“Stop being silly, darling. You’re a big boy now. Act your age.”
He stopped crying and looked around him. Everyone was watching him and sniggering. He felt humiliated. He lowered his eyes and stared at his feet. He was wearing his brand new baseball boots. They had looked so nice in the shop but now they just looked stupid. He wanted to run home and hide under the bed in his room. He wanted to die and go straight to Heaven.
The bell rang and everyone formed into lines outside the main entrance to the school. Mrs Fillary looked confused. She didn’t know which line her son should join. A small dark-haired girl in a green jumper noticed her confusion. “Over here,” she hissed, tugging on Mrs Fillary’s sleeve. “Quick, before Sister Bernadette comes out or you’ll be for it.”
Mrs Hillary hauled her son to the end of the little girl’s queue. “You’ll be all right now, darling,” she whispered, “Just do whatever the teacher says.” She bent down and kissed the fine blond hair on the top of her son’s head. Somebody behind them in the adjacent queue giggled.
At that moment the double doors into the school were flung open with a clatter of screeching metal. A small, fierce-looking nun dressed all over in black apart from a white collar round her face appeared framed in the archway. To Christopher it seemed like a vision, like something out of the prayer book he had got for Christmas. He thought maybe she was Joan of Arc even though he had thought she was dead. Perhaps she had come back to life like people did in miracles. He’d read about that in in a book old Mrs Fitzgerald had given him for his birthday. The crowd of chattering children quickly fell silent as the nun surveyed the scene through slitted eyes. He held his breath. The whole thing was miraculous.
Christopher looked round for his mother but she had vanished.
He was all alone. She had abandoned him again.
All that long hot summer he had played down at the fort beside the river, coming and going as he pleased, running wild. He had caught grasshoppers and butterflies and put them in match boxes. If you put a grasshopper in a matchbox and shook it hard its head came off. Now he was the one that was trapped. Alone in this strange playground about to enter a grim and nasty building, a big dark box. Anything might happen to him inside that box.
He began to cry once more.