When The Moon Goes Down by Kelly Burden

People say night-time is the worst time. That everything feels worse in the ocean plunge of the night where fear swims in shadows and slithers under floorboards and lurks under beds.
       Night-time is for nightmares.
       Except, it’s the other way round for me.
       I like the way my heart calms to a gentle pulling in and out of the tide. Moonlight slips through a gap in my curtains slanting shadows on the walls. Day has dipped away and night is holding me in its soft, starry blanket.
       I’m safe in the dark, alone.

Mum swishes back my curtains, spilling soft gold light into my room, come on lazy bones, up you get, you’ll be late.
       In the kitchen my little sister, Nela, is eating scrambled egg with leftover chopped-up sausage and veg (vegetables for breakfast!). Egg is dotted about her face in little yellow puffs. I ask for coco-pops instead.
       But Mum gives me that look.
       I add a dollop of ketchup and I eat the eggs.

The moon goes down and everything changes. For a few seconds I am suspended between worlds where thoughts are dreams and my body hasn’t started clawing for breakfast. Then I remember what is happening at school today. I haven’t reminded Dad because a worry shared is a worry multiplied. I remember today is a Thursday and all at once the waves begin to rock and sway.

I’m almost out the door when Mum’s voice pulls me back in Tomas, don’t forget the harvest festival donation!
       On the doorstep is a bag of six tins of peaches – six! She can’t be serious, no way am I lugging six tins of peaches to school. She clocks my eye roll and says life wasn’t always kind for us either. She is right, but what’s the point in remembering the past?
       I take three tins. After work, Mum will take the rest to the food bank where she volunteers.

I have been at St Joseph’s primary for five weeks now but no one talks to me because they are already in their little friendship pools. Mrs. Ashby says pile up packets, jars and tinned food on the table please and I search my bag for a while, pretending to find something.
       Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are hot school dinner days. Landmark days. On those days the time before lunch is slow and syrupy and words float away in bubbles and numbers swirl around my head and nothing stays in. After lunch it’s different. The clawing fades and I don’t spill as many drops of learning from my brain.
       Tuesdays and Thursdays are no school meal days (I’m supposed to bring in my own packed lunch). On these days Mrs. Ashby’s words swim through my brain like water and I can’t hold onto any of it no matter how hard I try.

Why is the new boy taking so long? The queue behind me is growing and a couple of kids knock into my back. They act like they don’t mean it, like they always do, and I pretend it doesn’t bother me.

It takes more effort than you think spending the day going unnoticed. I’m always so tired and relieved when school finishes and night comes and I don’t have to keep trying. But today is a no day, so I need to think a little bit harder.
       I look at the food piling up on the table. The drumbeat feeling I’ve been carrying around all morning suddenly flips itself upside down and a ball of anger bounces around the hollow of me.

After lunch Mrs. Ashby asks for volunteers and a bunch of us put up our hands. Even the new boy who never puts his hand up for anything. Although he practically leaves his skin behind in his chair when Mrs. Ashby says his name and I’m wondering how he’ll even carry a packet of quavers down to the school hall, let alone a box of tinned food or jars of jam. He’s always staring off into space like his brain is wandering around outside of his body.

I jump – feeling like I’ve been caught out already – and I don’t like how Mrs. Ashby says Ollie that’s wonderful in a sing-song voice because it means she’s pleased with me. She gives me a soft smile and moves onto the next name. I’m trying not to like Mrs. Ashby because it makes it hard and sad when I have to leave this school too, but she’s one of those teachers who you can’t help but like.

Mrs. Ashby pairs me up with the new boy. Ollie. I suppose I should call him by his actual name. The whole time we’re filling boxes with donations from the table he doesn’t say a word, so I fill the space between us with chatter, like Mum does when she’s trying to make people feel comfortable. I’m shoving packets of biscuits and jars of jam and tins of food into the box and the whole time I’m talking Ollie is packing his box really slowly. Like really slowly. As though each item is made of stone.

I don’t mind the way Tomas keeps talking because it means I don’t have to. The more he talks the more he starts to remind me of my best friend from my last school and it’s like I’m rewinding back through time. Sometimes it’s nicer to look backwards instead of forwards. My ball of anger slows to a fizzle, but the clawing and scraping and hollowness is bigger than ever as I turn over each item in my hands, waiting for a moment Tomas isn’t looking.

I start passing Ollie bigger, lighter items to pack in his box otherwise we’ll be here all day. I balance one of Mum’s tins of donated peaches on the top, like a full stop. I ask him if he likes peaches with cream or custard because he still hasn’t said anything and Mum says sometimes you just have to ask a choice question – dogs or cats? sun or snow? – that kind of thing to break the ice.
       Even though it’s after lunch a growl escapes from his stomach, but then he answers ice-cream and smiles, his cheeks showing the tiniest speck of pink like maybe there’s colour in there waiting to escape after all.

In the school hall there are trestle tables on the stage and golden letters – St Joseph’s Harvest Festival – flapping a glittery wave as we enter. The air is thick with that after lunch fried food smell and it brings a bubble to my throat. Children from reception class are sticking autumn leaves gathered from the playground onto a paper tree. No one notices the skeleton leaf, paper-thin, lift and drift amongst the bounce of shoes. The box is heavier than I thought and the tin of peaches tumbles and rolls away from me.

Ollie is scrabbling around on the floor like a skittish mouse. I try telling him to leave the tin, that the peaches don’t matter, Mrs. Ashby or another teacher will find them. But he stays down there, under the table, like his life depends on it.

I scramble back out and Tomas is staring at me and through me and all around me. I want to be at home, in the safety of the night. Back in the dark. Back in the shadows. Where nobody can see me.

He is as white as a sheet, even the pink-cheek specks from earlier have drained to nothing. I know that look.
       And then I am calling his name.
       I am calling for Mrs. Ashby.
       I am saying Ollie
       again and again,
       and again.

       I am clutching the tin of peaches.
       I am seeing stars explode.
       I am falling into night.
       I am falling,
       I am.


I am sitting on Ollie’s bed. I ask him what he wants to do today. I say I have gift vouchers for the cinema, or we could take my kite to the park.
       Ollie and his Dad are really nice. I’ve been going round to their flat most days after school with Mum and Nela. Ollie’s face is pinker than I’ve ever seen it and his eyes are getting brighter each day, like a drawing starting to be coloured in.

I was worried they’d take me away from Dad. There have been some changes. Dad says I can go back to school next week if I’m ready. Mrs. Ashby has arranged for me to catch up on what I’ve missed. Because of Tomas’s Mum I’m no longer dreading Tuesdays or Thursdays.
       I say the park and Tomas smiles. The cinema is dark and I don’t feel like being in the dark today.

Ollie runs into the wind with the kite and it lifts and swoops and soars. Then the kite begins flittering in crazy little circles so I go after Ollie, grab the string and together we steady it.

The kite calms and glides around the sky once more and we run and laugh. When the wind changes direction the trees shake their leaves in a firework burst of brightness and the kite nosedives to the ground. I run to it and throw the kite as high as I can, watching the sun pull it into its golden arms.
       And then we’re running. Together.

Kelly Burden is a primary school Teaching Assistant, living in West Sussex with her husband and young daughter. She recently graduated with distinction from The University of Winchester’s MA in Writing for Children and is currently working on her first middle-grade novel. 

Twitter: @kellyburden6

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