‘And then she just stood there and laughed. Laughed at me. Then everyone else joined in. Johnny and Paul and Andy and Ben and Harry and Jamie and Ollie and everyone. They just stared laughing. I even laughed for a bit, even though everyone was laughing at me. Then she put her arms up in the air, like a big letter ‘Y’ or maybe like one of those sticks you use to find water, and she started cheering…’
‘Daniel,’ his mother said, debating the use of the dreaded middle name, ‘she did not start cheering.’
‘She did’ he retorted. ‘She did, and then everyone joined in, just like the laughing. I don’t really know why they were cheering. They hadn’t won anything, nothing like that.’
‘And how do you feel now?’ Her voice was softer now, cradling him with her syllables.
‘I don’t know. Mrs Johnson says that my heart is broken, but it doesn’t feel broken.’
‘It takes a lot to break a person’s heart, Daniel. They’re made to take knocks, like a door to your soul. Eventually it’ll open up, but only to the right person.’
‘The person that rings the doorbell?’
‘That’s right. I had lots of people knock on my door when I was younger.’ said his mother, smiling to herself. ‘Tall men, and short men. Men with big wallets, and men with big dreams. Men with moustaches that tickled, and men with skin so smooth than it felt like you were having a wash when they held your hand. Lots of men, all knock, knock, knocking on my door. And every time they’d knock, it would feel like my heart was breaking, but it never did. Not once, even though it felt like it. And then… then your Dad came along. He didn’t knock like all the other men. That’s when I knew he was special.’
It wasn’t until then that Daniel realised just how warm the room was. The ants in his pants were running around, searching for cool. He fidgeted like a boy whose backside was attempting to Tango.
‘Are you tired?’ Daniel nodded his consent. His mother made to pick him up, but he shook his head, and instead rolled himself off the sofa and onto his feet, swaying like a flagpole in the breeze as he touched ground. When he got to the doorway he tentatively turned heel.
‘Mam?’ he whispered, like the word escaped from his mouth without permission. ‘Why did everyone laugh and cheer when I felt sad?’
His mother paused. She didn’t want to lie to her son, but he wasn’t ready for the world yet. He needed to be dipped in it, like marshmallows in chocolate.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, honestly, ‘I really don’t. Sometimes people do strange things when they don’t know what to do. I once knew a man who, when he found out his sister had died, fell asleep.’
With that, Daniel made his way upstairs, dragging himself up each step. Each was his own personal Everest, and he, without pickaxe, Sherpa, or thermals, scaled them with ever increasing momentum. At the summit, standing proud and sleepy, he planted his foot into the carpet and silently claimed this triumphant feat in the name of Rachael Madison from Miss Archer’s class, even though she didn’t love him and had laughed at him and had cheered when everyone else had laughed at him too.
When his head touched pillow, he faded away into the Land of Nod instantly, not even bothering to take off his pyjama top, as he often did in the warm, lingering summer. For the first time in his little life that he could remember, Daniel didn’t dream.
Daniel didn’t wake up until late the next day. The sunlight had crept up his blanket like high tide, warming the limbs that lay sprawled across the covers. The first thing he felt was the hairs on his arms, the scouting party for puberty, stand up to salute the Sun. The next thing he felt, which would not leave him for the rest of the day, was a careful and calm cracking of his heart.
The next few hours were spent trying to ignore this sensation. It felt as though he’d had his pocket money stopped for cleaning his room, as if his insides had cuddled a porcupine. Life so far had not prepared him for this, and as far as he could remember, he’d never had any lessons about it. Counting and sounds and weddings and Jesus and the Egyptians and rivers and heads, shoulders, knees and toes, but never breaking hearts. Breakfast didn’t help, neither did the bath he was forced to take, though he was wary not to roll around in the tub too much in case he made it worse.
By the time when his tummy had started rumbling but it was still too soon to ask for more food because he hadn’t eaten all of his dinner, Daniel had come up with a plan. Exercising the nonchalance of a cat, he spilled away from his home in front of the TV, past his mother and her kitchen table of gossip and cigarette smoke, up the stairs and into the most forbidden place to every little boy, his big sister’s bedroom.
It smelled like her hair, and it didn’t look like a bedroom. It looked like the Teddy Bear’s Christmas Party. Everywhere he looked, Daniel’s eyes were assaulted with cross-stiches and buttons and hazelnut faux fur, but beneath all of the stuffed toys, he could just make out the treasure trove that he was about to search. He knew two things about his sister; firstly, she smelled, and secondly, she loved to buy books. She bought books like she was hoping to find a boyfriend just waiting for her inside one. He could see books stacked neatly on shelves, topped off with dust like a cake would be topped with sprinkles, but none of those would be the book he was looking for. The book he was after was new. Faded blue cover beneath the plastic protector that came fitted with each and every book borrowed, begged, or stolen from the school library.
It wasn’t under her bed, and it wasn’t in any of the drawers of her dressing table, and it wasn’t in the wardrobe amongst the clothes, and it wasn’t on any of the bookshelves lining the walls, and it wasn’t anywhere to be seen on the floor, and it wasn’t in the pages of her diary, although Daniel checked carefully just in case, and it wasn’t in the secret locked box at the end of the bed that Daniel knew how to get into without the key. Just as he was about the leave, he noticed something. The dressing table, a relic from his Great Aunt’s house that was now covered in Christmas lights despite it being early September, was slightly lopsided. When he stood on the loose floorboard next it to, it titled like a ship’s deck on unsteady seas.
Immediately, he fell to his belly. He resembled a beached dolphin. Under the left leg, right at the back buried in the cobwebs that spring up like sycophants around a lottery winner, was the book. Faded blue cover. Plastic protecting sleeve. Without thinking, he dragged it out. The dresser rocked, the waters getting stormier. Above him, he could hear a rolling, and then felt the thump of a toppled mug against his leg.
Quickly and without care, he scampered back to his room and jumped onto his bed. He placed the book out in front of him, his buried treasure. The Human Body by Steel, Hays and McGeorge. With the tenderness of an enraged rhino, he flicked page after page away, until he stopped dead on a double page spread. The title read The Heart.