Spelling Tests and Other Life Events

Daniel couldn’t help but feel betrayed by school. He’d been led to believe that school was fun, something to enjoy and look forward to. And at first it had been. But now he was in Year Four, and school was no longer fun — it was work. Here they were, barely a week back from the half-term break, and they already had to prepare for an upcoming spelling test. Daniel despised spelling.

Plus, with his brother now in Year Seven, he couldn’t even count on having Jack’s support at school. They weren’t in the same class, of course, but Daniel had always found comfort in knowing Jack was somewhere in the building, ready to come to his rescue if things ever got truly dire. Now, though, he was on his own. At least Jack’s school was near his, which meant that Daniel could walk to and from school in the company and protection of his older brother.

“Jack, look!” Daniel was making the short, but treacherous, journey home after school with his brother when he spotted a multi-coloured jumble on the sidewalk ahead. “What is that?”

“I don’t know. It looks like it might be a handbag.”

The two boys cautiously approached the heap. It lay on the bottom step of several leading to the front door of a terraced house. Daniel put his hand out to pick it up, but Jack stopped him.

“Wait.” He looked up and down the sidewalk. “It is a handbag. Do you think it belongs to whoever lives in there?” Jack jerked his thumb toward the front door, glancing furtively behind him to see if they were being watched — a gesture common in twelve-year-old boys the world over.

“Let’s find out.” Daniel sensed the potential for adventure, which wasn’t too frightening with Jack standing beside him. He put his hand out again, hesitating briefly, but when Jack didn’t stop him this time he extended his arm fully and took hold of the bag. He sat on the step where it had been and plopped it on his lap.

Inside he saw an envelope, a piece of paper, and a wallet. He pulled this out first and handed it to his brother. Jack opened it and retrieved the sole item of identification, the driver’s license. “It says here it belongs to a lady named Alice Moore, and…” he glanced at the door “…this is her address.”

Daniel wasn’t really listening. He’d pulled out the piece of paper and was reading intently. “Jack, I think… I think something might be wrong.”

“Why do you say that? What’s the note say?”

Daniel didn’t respond, just passed the paper to his brother.

To Whom It May Concern,

I guess you could say this is my final letter. This isn’t a will, because I don’t really have anything, and I don’t have anyone to leave it to if I did. The limitations of this physical life have gotten to be too much for me. I just can’t handle it anymore. The medications I have to take are having such an adverse effect on my body. I’m in pain all the time. I don’t really see the point of staying around. I’ve closed my bank account, and I’m going to buy myself a one-way ticket somewhere far away, as far as my money will take me. One final treat, you might say. Tell Dr Campbell I know she did her best for me, and I thank her for everything she did.

Alice

“Whoa.” Jack exhaled loudly and passed it back to his brother. “Is there anything else in there?”

Daniel slowly pulled out the envelope. “Just this.” He handed it over.

“Damn!” Daniel snapped to attention. His brother, being older, did sometimes swear, but it didn’t happen often.

“What is it?” Daniel strained to peer into the envelope Jack was holding. His brother pulled out a handful of fifty-pound notes. He’d never actually said a bad word out loud before, and he was too nervous to do so now, but the urge was strong. Daniel had never seen so much cash in one place before. At least, not unless he was watching TV.

“Whoa. How far do you think she could have gotten on that?”

“Far enough,” said Jack. He started to put the envelope in his pocket, but then stopped. The two brothers looked at one another.

“Do you think she’s home?” Daniel asked.

“There’s only one way to find out.” Jack climbed the steps and knocked on the door. There was no answer. The boys exchanged a look and then Jack knocked again.

“I’m coming! I’m coming! Give me a minute. I don’t move as fast as I used to,” came the reply from within. A moment later they heard a bolt sliding home and the door opened. A woman with a scarf wrapped around her head stood before them.

“Yes? Can I help you?”

Jack started. “I think so. Um, my name’s…I mean…”

“I’m Daniel and this is my brother, Jack.” Daniel stepped forward, holding his hand out as he’d been taught. The woman shook it, her grip weak and limp.

Daniel continued, strangely emboldened by the sight of this forlorn, deflated woman. “We found this, and think it belongs to you. Does it?” He held up the handbag.

The woman was clearly surprised. “My goodness. Yes. Where did you find it?”

The boys pointed to the bottom of the steps. “Down there.”

“Oh, dear. I must have dropped it and not even realised. Stupid medicine…makes me so flustered.” That last was muttered mostly to herself. But then she straightened, holding her head high. “Thank you. So much. Would you like to come in? I was just about to make myself some tea.”

Jack didn’t move. Daniel jabbed him in the ribs. “We also found this.” He gestured to the envelope Jack was still holding. A clouded look passed over Jack’s face, a mixture of regret and relief. He held the envelope toward the woman so she could take it.

“Oh,” was all she said. Then she opened the door wider and stepped aside to let them enter.

Daniel walked through the door, Jack trailing a few steps behind. The place was small but tidy. However, even with the distinct lack of clutter, there was an air of oppressiveness. Hope had once dwelt here, but, like a cat that ran away to find a new family — one that might sneak it bits of chicken under the dinner table — hope had slunk away from this house long ago.

“Please, sit down. Make yourselves comfortable. I’ll be right back with the tea.” The woman moved across the room and disappeared through a doorway, taking the handbag and envelope with her. Daniel and Jack each perched uncomfortably at the edge of the sofa.

“What are we doing here, Daniel? I thought we were just gonna’ give her the stuff back. Why did you come in?” Jack raised his knee and gave Daniel a swift, though not particularly hard, stomp on his toes.

“Ow! Bum face. I came in because she needs us. She needs help.”

“How do you know?”

Daniel thought about the woman’s letter and the look on her face when she opened the door. “I can’t explain it. I just know. You can go if you want but I’m staying here.”

Jack knew his brother, and he knew that tone. A year ago, when their beloved family pet, Pepper, died, Daniel had insisted that they bury her in the garden. Their mother hadn’t been keen on the idea and their father had started to refuse outright. But Daniel, normally shy and soft-spoken, had told them all that Pepper had been more than just a dog. She was a loyal and devoted family friend and had a right to find peace near her family. She deserved nothing less than to be buried under Mum’s coveted rose bush. He’d looked each one of them in the eye as he spoke, daring any of them to deny what he said was true. His chin had jutted out then the same way it was now, with him sitting on that tired old sofa in a stranger’s dreary living room.

“Fine. I’ll stay.”

They sat in silence for several minutes before Alice appeared with a tray, which she set down on the table. In addition to tea cups, milk, and a sugar bowl, there was a plate with three different kinds of biscuits. Daniel reached for a vanilla cream. Jack didn’t move.

Alice sat down and took a cup of tea. “I want to thank you two boys for returning my bag and my… well, I think most people would have kept all that money for themselves. It shows real character and courage on your part. And to show you both how grateful I am,” she pulled something out of her pocket, “…I want to give you this.” She handed each boy a fifty-pound note.

Jack immediately folded his note and rammed it in his pocket, mumbling a thank you. Daniel looked at the note he was holding, his hands in his lap, gently fingering its edges. “You don’t have to, you know.”

“I know. I want to.”

“What were you going to do when you got … when you got to wherever you were going?” Daniel still hadn’t looked up.

Alice regarded the boy sitting on her sofa. “Well, I wasn’t planning on coming back.”

Daniel waited for her to continue; she didn’t. The curtains were drawn, but not all the way, and a narrow shaft of afternoon sunlight filtered through the break, illuminating dust particles floating slowly toward any surface they could reach. In the weak light, Daniel thought that even the dust motes seemed dejected, sad, unmotivated. He followed one particle on its path to the floor, but once it made it below the windowsill it disappeared in the murky gloom.

“What does ‘adverse’ mean?”

“Why?”

“It’s one of my spelling words this week. Part of our homework is to use the words in a sentence.”

“Ah. It means harmful or unfavourable.”

“Are you good with words? I mean, do you know stuff like vocabulary and definitions and stuff?”

“I’m not too bad. English was my favourite subject back when I was in school.”

“Huh. Maths is my favourite. I don’t like spelling and grammar and all that junk.”

“Daniel,” his brother interrupted, “I think we should get home, or Mum will start worrying. You know how she gets.”

Daniel looked over at him. “Yeah, you’re probably right.” He looked at Alice. “Thank you for the tea. It was nice to meet you.” He stood up, but hesitated, his shyness showing for the first time in her presence. “Do you think, um, if I came here tomorrow, would you help me study for my spelling test? And help me write these sentences for my homework, so they don’t sound stupid? Would that be okay?” He held his breath as he waited for her to answer. It seemed an eternity before she finally said, softly, “Yes. That would be fine.”

Daniel sighed with relief and Jack headed for the door. As he passed the window, Daniel turned back to Alice and said, “I could open these curtains for you. If you want.”

She hesitated for only a moment before repeating, “Yes. That would be fine.”

Dust motes swirled and danced in the fading but newly welcome sunlight as Daniel pulled the drapes open. “I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon. Goodbye.”

Daniel started visiting Alice at least a couple times a week. Sometimes she’d help him with his homework. Other days, especially when Daniel could see that she wasn’t feeling well, they would sit on the sofa, eating biscuits and watching television. Daniel enjoyed the game show, Tipping Point, and was duly impressed when Alice would answer more questions correctly than she got wrong.

Eventually, Dr Campbell declared that Alice was in remission, and the two friends celebrated by splurging on a fancy chocolate cake from Marks and Spencer. When Daniel went to university, Alice presented him with a fountain pen, engraved with his initials. A year later, when Jack was killed in a car accident, Alice held Daniel’s hand all through the funeral service and didn’t let go once. His parents were huddled together in the first pew, but Alice never left his side. And when the cancer returned, Daniel sat quietly with Alice while she wept, making sure she wasn’t alone with her tears. As the vicar spoke at her graveside, Daniel removed a worn slip of paper from his wallet. Instead of dirt, he dropped her farewell letter, written a lifetime ago, into her grave as he said goodbye to his friend.

Three years later, his daughter was born. Her name was Alice.

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