WRITTEN BY BESTSELLING AUTHOR SUE MOORCROFT
A soft-hearted mother can’t let a special day pass, but she’ll have to tread carefully…
Letting myself through our white front door, I kick off my high heels and pause to listen.
Husband, Jonathan, and daughter, Rosie, will be safely at work, but it’s the school holidays and seventeen-year-old Kelvin might be in his room, along with any number of his often-noisy mates.
I’m pleased he feels he can bring friends home – but I’d rather it wasn’t on my precious half-day off, when I get a break from pampering others with manicures, pedicures and elegant nail art, and indulge in “me time”.
“Kelvin?” When lovely silence is my only reply, I dash up to run a bath, adding a dollop of ylang-ylang oil, drawing the blinds and lighting patchouli candles, revelling in the prospect of a soak without anyone queuing to use the bathroom.
Book and iPod at the ready, dressing gown on the hook, I’m soon sliding into velvety water. I let my head tip back and my shoulders unknot.
“Bliss,” I murmur.
The hours of creating tiny designs on other people’s nails, the awkward client who couldn’t tell blue from green, my boss worrying about overheads, they all drift away on a cloud of steam…
…to be replaced by the slam of the door and the thunder of feet on the stairs.
I tense, praying the racing footsteps will go straight to Kelvin’s room. Instead, Kelvin’s voice booms through the door. “Mum! Is that you in the bathroom?”
“Yes,” I sigh.
“Shane needs the loo.”
Shane’s one of Kelvin’s best friends, fresh faced and as gangling as a puppet. Reluctantly, my eyes open to slits. “What, now?”
“Yeah.” A pause. “Like, right now!”
“I’m in the…! Oh, all right.” Wishing we were a two-loo family, I slosh out of my precious velvet water and dry sketchily before yanking on my dressing gown and opening the door.
Shane sends me a grin, thrusts a big bag of crisps into Kelvin’s arms and executes an urgent little run past me. “Sorry. Thanks!” The bathroom door slams.
I frown at the crisps. “You’re not going to eat all those, are you?”
Kelvin hunches defensively, peeping at me from behind his hair
“No, they’re Shane’s.” He hesitates. “They’re his birthday present from his nan.”
“Oh.” The big green packet contains, according to the blaze of red lettering, three individual packs of ready salted crisps, three beef and four smoky bacon.
As birthday presents go, it’s modest.
But Shane’s family isn’t like ours. He lives with his mum or his nan, “depending” – I’ve never known on what – and, occasionally, his dad, “if he has to”.
Kelvin doesn’t talk about his friend’s situation often, except, occasionally, a quiet, “I feel bad for Shane.”
I feel bad for Shane, too. Shane doesn’t grumble. Whatever he feels, he hides it with his beaming smile and a tough shell of pride. I remember when Kelvin invited Shane to come on a trip to the coast; Shane had no money but became upset at the idea of us treating him to lunch.
Later, Kelvin explained Shane’s code. “He’ll only take what doesn’t cost others or what he can somehow repay.” The latter point doesn’t come into play much.
Shane also exhibits strength of character in staying on at school to do his A-Levels. I ache inside whenever he talks about finishing school and getting a job, “…so I’ll have my own money and be able to buy stuff.”
Silently, I add, And that’s when you’ll feel able to accept the generosity of others.
Now, Kelvin edges closer and whispers, “It’s his eighteenth birthday.”
“His eighteenth? Did his mum buy him a pressie?”
He shakes his head. “She’s gone off somewhere and his nan’s ill. He didn’t tell any of us about his birthday. I didn’t know until I met him in town and asked about the crisps.”
I blink hot eyes at the image of Shane wandering around with his only birthday gift – a supermarket own brand multi-pack of crisps. If he ever wonders why some kids get crisps and others get games consoles, I never see a sign of it.
“Grab a card out of the desk,” I hiss. “I’ll put a tenner in.”
Kelvin’s eyes light up. “Cool. Thanks.”
I know Jonathan will say, “You’re a soft touch!” But Shane’s only eighteen once and a birthday gift should be acceptable to even the fiercest pride.
We’ve just finished scurrying around when Shane reappears, pink from the steamy bathroom.
“Happy birthday!” I cry.
“Thanks!” His grin broadens. He takes the crisps back and the lads make for Kelvin’s room, Kelvin shoving the birthday card offhandedly at Shane and Shane saying, “Oh. Right. Wicked.” Then scrabbling to open it and dropping the ten pound note. He pauses in astonishment before snatching it up. “Thanks, that’s wicked!”
The look he throws back at me as he disappears is worth a lot more than ten pounds. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Shane’s never seen money in a card.
I’m making a family favourite dinner. I chop onions and think about Shane, still tucked away with Kelvin’s library of computer games.
If it were any other of Kelvin’s friends I’d take it for granted that he’d soon be going home for a slap-up birthday meal, with the family singing, “Happy Birthday to yoo-hoo,” over the cake. If it were Kelvin’s eighteenth we’d have a party or pay for him to go paintballing with his mates. Aunts and uncles would turn up with gifts and exclaim about where the last eighteen years have gone.
I can’t conjure up any of these scenarios for Shane. I wipe my eyes on my sleeve. Wretched onions!
Then I trot upstairs and poke my head around Kelvin’s door. “Staying for dinner, Shane?”
Shane flushes. “I’m all right.” His eyes flicker to the big bag of crisps.
Something happens to my heart, as if it’s swelling with determination to prevent Shane from sitting alone munching crisps whilst we enjoy a nutritious meal.
My mind whizzes back to what happened on our seaside jaunt last summer. “It’s only pasta,” I say, casually. “But I’ve made too much and I don’t like to throw it away.”
Shane gives me an incredulous stare
“Throw it away?” He gazes at me. “If you’re sure… then, thanks.”
Downstairs, I leave the chicken and onion aside and scrabble for the kitchen scales. It won’t take me long to make a little something.
Jonathan arrives, tie dangling, just as my concoction’s going into the oven. “Cake on a weekday?”
“Shane’s staying for dinner. It’s his eighteenth birthday and it sounds like there’s no-one living at home with him.” I tell him about the crisps and pretending I’d made too much pasta.
He gives me a big hug. “You’re a soft touch,” he chides, just as I knew he would. And he begins to clean the mushrooms while I get the chicken and onions sizzling and beat cheese into the egg.
Then Rosie rushes in, clutching her phone. “Mum, may I eat and run? Rory wants to go to a film at eight. It’s something he really wants to see.”
“Well, dinner’s going to be a bit late, darling, because I’ve been making a cake.” I explain about Shane’s birthday, and the crisps.
She gazes at me. Then she rings her boyfriend and talks him into going to see a film that begins at nine. She gallops upstairs and I hear her heading for Kelvin’s room. “Hey, Shane, Happy Eighteenth! You, an adult? Ha!”
I tip the pasta into the water to the sound of young laughter floating down the stairs.
They’re still laughing when I shout, “Dinner!” and they clatter down to take their places. We dig into the creamy pasta while the lemon drizzle cake, with its delicious gritty crust, cools.
No candles, no out-of-tune “Happy Birthday”, but Shane devours everything I put before of him. He wipes up the last smears of cake with a finger.
“That was wicked. Thanks loads. I can’t believe you were going to throw that pasta out.”
“Throw it out?” objects Rosie. “Why? Can’t the microwave heat up leftovers any more?”
The smile slides from Shane’s face
I try and brush the awkward moment aside. “I suppose Dad and me could’ve eaten it tomorrow but we’d be much better off with a nice salad.”
Shane begins to fidget. It’s obvious Rosie’s unthinking words have made him realise I cooked extra for him, knowing nobody at home would have gone to the trouble. His pleasure’s in danger of being spoiled by a whiff of charity.
Rosie and Kelvin fall silent while Jonathan’s brown eyes fill with compassion. If Shane’s enjoyment isn’t to be compromised, we have to find a way of appeasing his pride. With a deep breath, I smack my lips. “I could just do with something savoury to finish with.”
Shane’s gaze flips my way. “I know!” He jumps up and runs upstairs. Kelvin’s wide-eyed expression says, I hope you know what you’re doing.
In seconds Shane reappears, clutching his crisps. “We can finish off with these!” He rips the pack open and offers it to me, his smile back in place.
I swallow, hard.
Every instinct is screaming that I insist, “No, I’m full! You keep them.” The very last thing I want to do is take that garish packet.
But I look at his shining delight at being able to reciprocate in some way. “Thanks, Shane.” I linger over my choice. “Smoky bacon, I think.”
Following my lead, Kelvin and Rosie select ready salted and Jonathan b-b-q beef. “Thanks, Shane.”
The crisps nearly choke me. Seasoned strongly with grief and compassion, they scratch my throat with the knowledge that we’ve halved Shane’s meagre birthday haul.
But Shane munches away, smile blazing, chatting about the job he’s sure he’s going to get this summer. “Because I’m working proper hard at my A Levels.”
Under the table, I cross my fingers for him.
Finally, thankfully, the crisp course is over, and Shane licks his fingers. “Thanks again. That cake was wicked.”
“You’re welcome. And thanks for the crisps, Shane.”
Rosie has gone to the cinema. Jonathan and I are switching things off ready to go to bed when Shane finally leaves, clutching the rest of his crisps. “Happy Birthday,” we call for the last time.
Kelvin mooches into the sitting room as soon as the front door shuts. “Mum, I’m mega glad you’re a soft touch. He’d have had a rubbish birthday, if not for you.”
Jonathan ruffles Kelvin’s hair. “It’s not just that your mum is a soft touch, she’s got a soft touch. She found a way to do something for Shane without making him feel bad about accepting it.”
I blow my nose. “I think we’ve all learnt something, today.”
“Yeah,” says Kelvin, with feeling. “When it’s my birthday – no crisps, right?”
But he hugs me, which is lovely because he doesn’t go in for that kind of stuff. “You’re cool, Mum,” he says, gruffly.
I hug him back, hard. “Whatever temperature I am, when your eighteenth comes, I don’t think you’ll take the nice gifts you’ll get for granted.”
And I’m pretty sure that Kelvin will find a way to share with Shane some of whatever he receives, because, however much he hates the fact, Shane needs a bit more help. Just till summer. When
he gets that job he’s worked “proper hard” for.
Then, he’ll have many ways – and many reasons – to be proud.