My fifteenth birthday was very enjoyable, at least until it was approaching time for bed. There were a few cards, almost all from relatives, and there were some presents, the best of which was a laptop from my parents. There was even my favourite chocolate cake, which was large enough to keep my parents and me supplied with daily thick slices for at least a week. Besides all that, it was a Friday and I didn't have to get up for school the next day. So I was content as I got on with transferring files from my old desktop computer to my lovely, shiny new laptop. Mum must have known what a good mood I was in and maybe that's why she chose that particular moment to knock on my bedroom door.
Without me having to ask them to do so, on my eleventh birthday my parents had started knocking and waiting for a response before entering my room. When I thought about it later, I wondered if that gift of privacy had been another birthday present. In any case I'd learned to recognise which of them was at the door by the way they knocked. Dad made a quiet, almost timid tapping sound that gradually increased in volume until I responded, which could take some time if I was listening to music. When Mum knocked it started off quite loud and then rapidly escalated to an impatient hammering if I didn't answer quickly. So I immediately knew it was Mum, and called out for her to come in.
" I've got something for you," she said, staying just inside the doorway.
"Another present?" I asked gleefully, getting up from the chair in front my computer desk.
"Not really," she replied with a wan smile. That's when I noticed that she seemed to be uncharacteristically subdued and somehow almost defensive. She held out her hand and added "but I promised that you'd get these."
In her hand was a USB flash drive, but only one, so I wondered why she'd said 'these' and why she thought I might need yet another one to add to my collection. Still, not wishing to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially on my birthday, I took it from her while giving her a questioning look.
"It's got e-mails from Kenny on it," she said.
"He's got back in touch?" I asked, surprised and hardly daring to believe that such a wonderful thing might be true. "Why didn't he e-mail me direct?"
"Erm, no. He sent these ages ago and I, er, suppose he thought he was sending them direct. But I promised that you'd get them and now you're fifteen, it seems a good time to keep the promise."
Unusually for her, she sounded very hesitant and again there was a hint of defensiveness. The combination of her behaviour and her words left me feeling very confused, especially because she'd mentioned promises. From when I'd been just a small boy, Mum had always been very strict about keeping promises, insisting that I should never make a promise unless I intended to keep it.
"I don't understand," I said frowning. "When did he send the emails and why did he think he was sending them to me?"
She sighed and, detecting the hint of accusation in my tone, she became even more defensive, but there was more than a hint of defiance in her expression and the way she folded her arms. "Sit down and I'll try to explain."
I sat on my bed, expecting her to sit in the chair by the computer desk. So I was surprised when she stayed where she was. She sucked on her bottom lip for a couple of seconds before speaking. "You know I only ever want what's best for you and in the long run I thought a clean break would be best for both of you."
I nodded, accepting the first part of her statement, but I still frowned dubiously because I wasn't so sure about the second part. As I got older, it seemed that I disagreed more and more frequently with what she thought was best for me. "Why don't you tell me what you did and then I can decide later if it was really best."
"Well, I'm sure you remember when you were eleven and he knocked you down the stairs at school…" she began.
"Of course I remember," I interrupted. "It's hard to forget being in hospital with concussion and a broken arm, but it was an accident. He'd never have hurt me on purpose. It was just one of his spasms."
"That's not what some of the other kids said." She could tell I was going to interrupt again. So she held up her hand and spoke sternly. "Please let me finish. It doesn't matter if it was an accident or not, he was a danger to himself as well as others. What if he'd been the one to fall downstairs?"
"He had his helmet," I said a little too snidely. Then more seriously I added "and I would've been there to catch him. Anyway, he was about to try some new medications."
"Well, all that doesn't really matter now, does it? His mother decided he'd be better off moving to a different school. One more suited to his, er, special needs."
"I'd heard that the headmistress threatened to expel him if he didn't leave voluntarily," I replied, beginning to feel again an anger that I thought had been long forgotten.
"She had a duty to consider the wellbeing of the whole school," Mum said firmly, "and I'm sure it was best for Kenny, too."
"Well, it wasn't best for me," I said sulkily. "I really missed him when he went away, especially when he never got in touch."
"I know you did, dear, but at least it was easier for you to make other friends when you weren't hanging around with him all the time. And… and… well, he did think he was keeping in touch."
That's when everything she'd been saying began to make sense, though I didn't like the conclusions that I was reaching. I was so shocked that I could hardly breathe, but I managed to whisper "What did you do?"
"He said that he wanted to stay in touch and although his mother and I thought that a clean break would be best for both of you, we didn't have the heart to tell him that. So I gave him an e-mail address that he could use to contact you."
"But you wouldn't let me have my own private e-mail address then. You said you and Dad didn't think it was a good idea because I was too young and I had to use one of your addresses." As I was speaking another piece of the jigsaw fell into place and I looked at her in horror.
"Exactly," she said, now much more defiant than defensive. "I promised that you'd get the e-mails. I didn't say when you'd get them. Now that you're hopefully able to be mature about things, I'm keeping that promise."
She left the room, closing the door behind her. The flash drive was clutched tightly in my hand and as I unclenched my fingers, I thought about Kenny.
On my first day at primary school it was impossible to miss Kenny, even though he was shorter than most of the other children in our class. After all, he was the only boy in the whole school who wore a plastic helmet all day. It was bright blue and appeared to be similar to those worn by cyclists. The first time I spoke to him was to ask why it was such a brilliant colour. He told me that if he had to wear such a stupid thing all the time then it might as well be in his favourite colour. Much later, after we'd been friends for a couple of years, he also told me that I was the only person he'd ever met who'd asked him about the colour before asking why he wore it.
The helmet had quite large holes and through them I saw that his head was a bit elongated and that his reddish-brown hair was very short. However, after that my attention was grabbed and held by his large, twinkling gold-flecked amber-brown eyes and the quirky little smile on his narrow lips. As a five year old in a brand new environment I found many things strange and wonderful, but for me he was the most exotic thing in the room and I couldn't take my eyes off him. Later he became just Kenny and was no longer such a fascinating creature, but I could still never understand why so many of the other kids so often either ignored him or even made fun of him.
In comparison to Kenny, with my average height, hazel eyes and light brown hair, I was probably the most ordinary boy in the room. The only thing vaguely unusual about me was the shortness of my hair. Mum said that it was so fine and grew in so many different directions that it was unmanageable and the only way to keep it tidy was either to have it very short or put on lots of gel. Mum and I agreed that gel was not the preferred option.
My hair had a strange fascination for Kenny and within minutes of our first meeting he reached out to touch it. A couple of months after we became friends, while we were sitting in a quiet corner of the playground, he started stroking my hair and I pulled away from him. He apologised and said that my hair was like a cat's fur and as he wasn't allowed to have pets he wanted to stroke it and imagine it was a pet. After that I allowed him to stroke my hair whenever he wanted, but only when we were alone together. Actually I enjoyed it and found it very soothing, although I pretended I was doing it just to humour him.
Kenny was different from my classmates in other ways, too. His left foot tended to drag a little when he walked, especially when he was tired. Sometimes, especially when he was excited or stressed, his right arm or right leg would lash out in a spasm and that usually made me giggle uncontrollably. The teachers wouldn't let him watch TV or videos with the rest of us because they said it could give him seizures. However, the seizures were quite rare and I saw only about a dozen of them in six years. Admittedly, though, the first couple that I saw scared me quite a lot.
Another really memorable thing about Kenny was the hugging. Of course, when I was a little kid I'd get hugs from my parents if I was upset, but apart from that, hugs were a relatively rare occurrence in my family. One of the things I soon noticed about Kenny was that he and his mother exchanged hugs as a form of greeting and whenever they said goodbye. When we'd known each other for just a couple of weeks, Kenny started doing the same thing with me and at first it made me quite uncomfortable because even at five years old I knew that boys didn't hug other boys.
I didn't actually reject him, however. So Kenny persevered, and after a few days I began to return the hugs, albeit very tentatively. By the time we were about seven years old it became a natural part of our interactions and even the other kids seemed to accept it as just another aspect of Kenny's oddness. However, as we approached our eleventh birthdays some of the other kids started making disparaging comments about our hugs, but Kenny ignored them, and I didn't want to be the one to break our tradition.
Like any other kids, we occasionally had disagreements and became annoyed with each other and sometimes that led to some mutual pushing and shoving. However, it never turned into a physical fight and our friendship always returned to normal within a few minutes. I couldn't remember exactly how or when it began, but by the time we were about seven years old, we'd developed a sort of ritual for making up after a quarrel. Depending on which of us wanted to make the first move, either he would reach out to touch my hair or I would bend my head to offer it to be touched. If we were in public the contact would be very brief, but if we were alone he could spend a considerable time stroking my hair and by the time he'd finished any possibility of ill feelings had totally disappeared.
Of course, I remembered all those obviously unusual things about him, but I couldn't forget all the more subtly different things. He had a great sense of humour, but he was always funny in a serious sort of way. He was kind and considerate, not only to other people, but also to animals, and I never saw a dog, or even a cat, that didn't fall under his spell. He was an interesting and loyal companion and most important of all, he was the best friend I ever had.
The other kids never seemed to see him as I did and some used to call him names. The name I hated most of all was 'spaz', and I occasionally got into trouble for fighting with those who used that horrible name. However, I would've been in trouble more often if Kenny hadn't held me back, usually physically and with considerable strength.
His mum was great, too. She spoiled him quite a bit and she spoiled me as well whenever I went to visit. Her excuse, if she needed one for treating him like a prince, was that she had to give him enough love for two parents after his dad had left them soon after Kenny was born. Because she was so kind and could bake gorgeous chocolate cakes, I really enjoyed visiting his house and was sometimes allowed to stay overnight. However, until I was nine years old I wasn't allowed to walk there on my own as it was some distance from my home and the walk involved crossing two very busy roads.
Although I couldn't remember anything else about my first visits to his house, I did remember that's when I found out that he could just wear a padded cap at home. Apparently that was because any hard surfaces and the edges and corners of furniture were covered in plastic foam. However, rather selfishly, I always thought he looked much more impressive in the bright blue helmet.
Then one day, after over six years of being best friends, he disappeared from my life. We'd just got to the top of a set of stairs in the main school building and we were rather stupidly messing around when he had one of his arm spasms. The back of his hand caught me under the chin, and I fell down the stairs. The next thing I remember is waking up in an ambulance with a very sore head and an even more painful left arm.
I had concussion and my arm was broken, and when I got home from the hospital I was told that it had been decided to move Kenny to a 'special' school. By the time I was allowed out of the house, Mum told me that there was no point in me going to see him because he no longer lived at home. I was shocked that he hadn't got in touch, at least to see how I was after the accident. So ignoring what Mum had told me, I went round to Kenny's house as soon as I could go out on my own.
I was very nervous when I knocked on his door because I felt guilty, thinking that if I hadn't been messing around and fallen down the stairs, he wouldn't have been sent away. Because of what Mum had said, I didn't really expect he'd be there, but I did hope to get in touch with him through his mum. When she answered the door she frowned and didn't invite me inside and so I had to speak with her while I was standing on the doorstep.
"Does your mum know you're here?" she asked sternly, ignoring my request for information on how to contact her son.
"Erm, no, but…"
"Well, I think you should go home," she interrupted me, "and you should ask her permission before coming round here again."
This didn't appear to be the same warm and caring woman I'd grown to know and I couldn't understand why she was treating me so coldly. I wondered if she blamed me for Kenny having to go away.
"I'm sorry for what happened," I said, trying to hold back tears. "I know it wasn't Kenny's fault and that he shouldn't have to go away."
For a moment I thought her expression softened a little, but her words were still harsh. "That doesn't matter now. He's gone away and there's no reason for him to stay in touch. You'll have to accept that."
"B-but," I said, no longer trying to hold back the tears, despite the fact that I knew that big boys don't cry, "will you tell him I still want to be best friends?"
"We'll see," she said.
She closed the door before I could say anything else and as she did so I noticed that her face seemed thinner than I remembered. There also appeared to be a tear in the corner of her left eye. That evening she phoned my mum who then scolded me for bothering Mrs Doyle when I'd already been told that Kenny wasn't there any more.
After that encounter I was afraid of confronting Kenny's mum directly again. However, on the second Saturday after I returned from the hospital I decided to try a less direct approach and phone his house. I thought that maybe Kenny might come home at least occasionally on weekends and that if I were really lucky he might even be the one who answered my call. At the time I didn't have a mobile phone. So while my parents were preparing our evening meal, I broke the rule about not using the house phone without permission.
As it happened, Kenny's mum answered. She said he wasn't there and when I asked her to let him know I called she just said it would be best to wait for him to contact me because he needed time to settle in at his new school. Because I'd always thought she liked me, I was quite upset by her cold tone and I became convinced that she really did blame me for Kenny having to change schools. If she reported the call to my parents they never mentioned it. So at least I didn't get into trouble for breaking the rule.
After that I wrote a couple of letters and sent them to him at his house, but there was no reply. As far as I knew, he'd never tried to contact me and so I thought he also blamed me. I missed him so much that for many nights I cried myself to sleep, but as the weeks went by I gradually stopped crying. However, I never stopped missing him and I never had another best friend.
With memories of Kenny replaying in my mind, I plugged the USB stick into my computer.
Your mum said to use this e-mail addy to contact you. So here I am! :)
Sorry about the fall down the stairs.
You do know it was an accident, right? I heard that some kids said I did it on purpose but you know better, right? I'd never hurt you on purpose and I feel real bad about it being an accident. If I'd known, I would have let you borrow my helmet! :)
I'm sure Mrs Fletcher knew that, but she still said I had to leave the school. Mum always said she wanted me to go to a school like everybody else. But then she agreed cos getting expelled would look bad for me. I was sad she agreed so fast though.
Anyways, I hear you got back from hospital a couple of days ago and I was hoping you'd come round, but I guess you're not well enuf yet. I phoned a couple of days ago but your mum said your head still hurts and that e-mail is better. I start my new school on Monday so hope you can come round before then. Did your mum tell you it's so far away that I have to stay there during the week and just come home on weekends?
Well you know I don't like writing much so I'll just say hope your better soon and that I see you soon.
Your bestest friend,
The next email was sent a few days later.
Still not heard from you. Just back for the weekend and was hoping you'd have come round or at least e-mailed me. The new school isn't bad. At least nobody calls me names and some have much bigger problems than me. Actually it's not really like a school cos most of the kids go to local ordinary schools. They call it a 'Residential Centre' and it has special stuff for kids with physical problems.
I have to share a room with another boy. He's 14 and can't walk at all so he's in a wheelchair. I think he said he's got spyner something. Still he can really zip around and with the handles and stuff all over the place he can get in and out of bed on his own. He's okay (apart from he snores a bit, but not too bad) and friendly like the rest of them. But I haven't made any real friends yet. I really miss you.
For some reason my mum didn't seem keen on me phoning you on Friday night, but I did anyway when she wasn't there. Your dad answered and he seemed a bit odd. He passed me on to your mum and she said you weren't in and said for the time being to just use e-mail.
Ya know, I think they blame me for what happened, even though it was an accident. You did tell them it was an accident, right? I'm a bit worried that you blame me too cos if your well enuf to go out, why didn't you come round? And why haven't you answered my last email? I know you broke your arm, but it was your left arm and you can type with one hand. :)
Anyway, I hope your not angry at me. you know I'm really really really REALLY REALLY SORRY SORRY SORRY. right?
Please, Please get in touch!!
He's sent another email just over a week later.
I'm really sad that you've still not got in touch. There are some really nice people here, but they aren't my special best friend like you.
There's a woman Angela who keeps coming round to see me. She's a social worker and is supposed to make sure I'm okay while I'm living away from Mum. That was odd cos others here are even farther from parents and don't have a social worker coming to see them. Anyway the woman is nice and Mum says it's okay so I guess it is.
Well I finished the assessment period and they decided which local school to send me to. I heard one of the assistants who helped with the tests say to Angela that he didn't think my problems were bad enough for residential care. She said something to him that I couldn't really hear and he just gave me a funny look as if he was a bit sad. I think I heard her say something about my mum, but I'm not sure. I wish they'd just talk to me and not go on about me as if I wasn't there.
Please Please Please write soon!!
Spread over the next few weeks there were four other e-mails, all similar in that they began with a mention of his life at the new school then went on to say he was sorry and ask me to get in touch. After that, there was one final message.
I was 12 this week and you didn't even write or phone to say happy birthday. I guess that means you don't want to be friends anymore. I thought we'd be best friends forever, but it looks like you've dumped me. Mum says I need make new friends at my new school and make a new start. I'm going to do that.
Term ends in a couple of weeks and I'm going on a school trip to France. At least one good thing about being at a 'special' centre is that they can get money for free trips. But why should you care?
Well I guess you must have been telling your mum to say you were out when I called. I really never thought you'd be like that. But I won't bother you anymore.
Your friend (despite everything if you want)
When I read that, I choked up, and had to blow my nose and dab my eyes. My own twelfth birthday, a couple of months after Kenny's, had been miserable because I'd missed him so much. It was clear that for the best part of four years I'd thought that my best friend had dumped me and he'd thought that I'd dumped him. Our mothers had managed to deprive us both of our friendship and all because it seemed my mum thought she knew what was best for everyone else. I was extremely angry and would've gone to yell at her, but I knew she'd already gone to bed. I wondered if that timing was part of her plan when she gave me the memory stick.
The next morning, after a restless night of fitful sleep, much of my anger at Mum had turned to a sullen resentment, but I didn't feel like confronting her immediately. So I didn't go down to breakfast. Instead, I decided that one way or another I had to get in touch with Kenny, if only to explain to him that I hadn't deliberately ignored his emails. Even if he were home for the weekend, I was afraid to just go round to his house unannounced in case he or his mum turned me away before I had an opportunity to explain the situation. With some trepidation I considered phoning his home number, but I couldn't remember it and couldn't find it written down anywhere.
It occurred to me that the next fastest and certainly the easiest thing to do was to send an e-mail to the address from which he'd sent his messages to me. Of course, I realised that after four years it may not be an address he currently used. So I sent just a very short email saying that I'd only just got the messages he'd sent. Then, having heard the front door bang shut and assuming my parents had gone on their Saturday morning shopping trip, I went downstairs to get some food. When I got back to my room I checked my email, though I didn't expect a reply from Kenny so soon. As it turned out, I found that the e-mail I'd sent had already bounced back with an 'unknown recipient' error message.
Without any other means of contacting Kenny, I was forced to reconsider the idea of going to his home. As I approached the house with some trepidation, the first thing I noticed was that the front door had been freshly painted and was now black, rather than the deep maroon that I remembered. A few seconds after I rang what appeared to be a new brass doorbell, a thin young woman appeared and the surprise of seeing a total stranger in Kenny's house left me temporarily speechless.
"Yes," the woman prompted, not unkindly, "Can I help you?"
"Erm," I said slowly and paused. Then I continued in a rapid burst of words. "Is Kenny in?"
"There's no one called Kenny living here," she said frowning. "I'm sorry, but you must have the wrong address."
"What about Mrs Doyle?" I asked desperately as she began to close the door.
"Oh," the woman said as if she were having a revelation. "You mean the woman who used to live here. We bought the house six months ago from her estate."
Not realising the significance of the word 'estate', I asked "Do you have a forwarding address?"
"She's dead. We just dealt with a solicitor," she said sympathetically. She waited patiently for me to recover from the shock before she added "Is there anything else?"
"Erm, no. Thank you," I replied.
She shut the door gently, but for a few seconds I couldn't bring myself to walk away. It was hard to believe that Kenny's mum was dead, and as I began to comprehend the information, I realised how devastated Kenny would have been. He would've needed a best friend and I regretted even more that I'd not been there for him. As I made my way home, it occurred to me that maybe I should've asked for the solicitor's contact details, because that might have provided me with a way to contact Kenny. However, at that particular moment I didn't feel like going back and bothering the woman again.
I didn't expect my parents to return from their shopping trip until after lunch. So I made myself a sandwich and waited for them to get back. As soon as the bags had been brought in from the car, I confronted my mum.
"Did you know Kenny's mum was dead?" I asked accusingly.
Dad, looking a little embarrassed, looked at Mum and then began unpacking the shopping.
"Yes, dear," she replied and sighed.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Why risk upsetting you? What good would it've done?" she countered.
"What good?" I gasped. "What good? I could have been there for Kenny."
"He's got a new life and new friends now," she replied gently. "He had lots of people who were there for him."
I was outraged by her apparently blasé attitude and the realisation that she'd been keeping so much from me. I had to take a deep breath and calm myself down so that I wouldn't say something that I might later regret. Perhaps thinking that I needed to be left alone for a while, she turned away and started putting away the items that Dad had been unpacking. When I eventually got myself under control, the first thing that came into my head was a question.
"What did she die of?" I asked.
"Cancer," she said, stopping what she was doing, "of the ovaries."
"How long was she ill?" I asked. Then I had a thought and added, "Was she left all on her own while Kenny was away?"
"She was diagnosed before the… well… the incident when you broke your arm and she wasn't completely alone." She paused and sighed before continuing. "We became friends with her soon after you started staying over at Kenny's house. Your dad and I saw her almost every day just before she died."
That's when I remembered that for some months they'd frequently gone out, telling me that they were going to see a sick friend, but at the time I hadn't thought to ask who it was, presuming it was someone I didn't know.
"Why did she let Kenny be sent away when he could've been there for her too?" I asked.
"Do you really think she'd have let him go away if she hadn't thought it was best for him? Don't you think that she'd have fought to keep him there if it'd been just a case of him being blamed unfairly?"
I shook my head, acknowledging her points, but not yet appreciating what exactly they implied.
"She knew that the treatments she needed would make her ill and that she'd sometimes need to be away from home," Mum continued patiently. "And she realised that she wouldn't be able to give Kenny the special care he needed. She also didn't want him to be distressed by seeing her so ill. So she decided that a residential school was the best option. Once she'd made that decision, we talked about it and agreed that because he'd be living so far away and would need to make new friends quickly, it would be best for both Kenny and you if there was a quick, clean break."
Dad, who'd finished unpacking, gave Mum a strange look, then turned his head to me, showing a sad, almost apologetic smile. I got the impression that he hadn't been altogether happy with the agreement between Mum and Mrs Doyle.
"Presumably she went along with the e-mail lie, too," I said accusingly.
"It wasn't exactly a lie," she prevaricated. "And it was actually her idea."
"And now I have no way of getting in touch with Kenny," I said sadly.
"Why would you want to?" she asked, clearly still not understanding how important my best friend had been to me. Then, to make matters worse, she added a couple of banal platitudes. "It's best to let sleeping dogs lie. You shouldn't open up old wounds."
Then a thought occurred to me and I asked "If you were friends with Kenny's mum and saw her in hospital, does that mean you saw him, too?"
"Only a couple of times before his mum went into hospital the last time, then in the hospital, then at the funeral."
"Didn't he ask about me?"
"Not really. He just asked if you were okay and when I said you were, he left it at that."
"So he must still think I dumped him. Do you know where he is now?" I asked suspiciously.
"Not the exact address, no," she replied evasively.
"What bit of the address do you know?
"Just that he's still in the residential centre and that it's in Linchester."
Confused by a mixture of emotions in which sadness and anger fought for dominance, I didn't know whether to cry or yell at her. So I just went to my room and lay on my bed, staring blankly at the ceiling while I tried to sort out my jumbled thoughts. My parents must have decided that I was best left alone, because neither of them came up to my room
Eventually I came up with a plan. It occurred to me that there couldn't be many residential centres in Linchester for kids with special needs and that I should be able find them by doing an internet search. Then I could phone each one and ask if there was a Kenny Doyle living there. There seemed no point in planning what to do next until I knew for sure where he was located.
As it turned out, there was only one result of the search that fit my criteria; it was a place called St Anthony's. By that time it was approaching the usual time for our evening meal, and I was getting hungry. However, I wanted to make sure I'd found the right place before I went down to eat. So without any further thought I picked up my phone and dialled.
"Hello. This is St Anthony's," a pleasant female voice answered quickly. "How may I help you?"
"Erm, is Kenny Doyle there?" I asked hesitantly.
"You mean Ken? Isn't he answering his mobile?" she asked. Before I could think of a reply, she continued in an amused tone "He's probably let the battery run down again. Just a moment and I'll see if he's around."
Before I had time to say that I was actually just calling to see if he lived there, I heard her call out, "Annie, do you know where Ken is?"
"I just saw him in the rec room," a barely audible voice replied.
"Would you get him for me, please? Tell him he has a phone call at the reception desk," the woman said. Then, speaking into the phone, she added "Please hold the line. He shouldn't be long."
Not having been prepared to actually speak to Kenny, I was tempted to make excuses for not waiting or even just to hang up. However, having put the woman and Annie to such trouble, that would have been rude and inconsiderate. So I nervously waited until I heard the phone being picked up.
"Hello?" As I might have expected, the voice was considerably deeper than my best friend's had been the last time I'd heard him and I couldn't identify the speaker from that single word.
"Are you Kenny Doyle?" I asked tentatively.
"Who wants to know?" he responded suspiciously.
"It's me, Sam, Sam Kennedy."
"What do you want?"
I now recognised his voice despite the changes, but my initial happiness was immediately erased by the hostility in his tone. I was so hurt and disappointed that I just said the first thing that came into my head.
"I'm sorry about your mum. I wanted to get in touch and explain what happened…"
"I'm not an idiot. I know what happened," he interrupted angrily. "She died of cancer."
"No, I didn't mean explain about your mum," I said hurriedly. "I meant about the e-mails and why we lost touch."
"I know that, too," he said bitterly. "You got tired of spending time with a spaz."
"No! It wasn't like that!" I protested. "I didn't get the e-mails and it wasn't our fault. I thought it was you who…"
"It doesn't really matter," he interrupted again. "It was a long time ago. Everything is different now. I'm different. Whatever it is you want, forget it."
Then he hung up, leaving me completely stunned. It was only after the shock wore off that I began to feel upset and angry. That anger wasn't just directed at our mothers, who'd effectively sabotaged our friendship, but also at Kenny. I resented the fact that he'd not even given me a chance to explain and I supposed that meant that he really was different now. I wondered if I really did want to get in touch with him again.
When Mum called upstairs to let me know that dinner was almost ready, hunger overcame my reluctance to face my parents and I went down. Although I'd intended to avoid any verbal expression of my resentment until after we'd eaten, it seemed that I couldn't avoid showing it in other ways. Maybe it was the way I viciously attacked the lasagne and broccoli on my plate. Although both my parents could tell that I was feeling very grumpy, it was Dad who brought up the topic.
"Okay, Sam," he said, staring me in the eye. "What's all the sulking for?"
"You know," I muttered, looking down at my plate.
"If it's about losing Kenny, then I'm sorry, I really am. Your mother… erm… we did what we thought would be best, least painful, for everyone. Maybe it was a mistake." He paused as Mum glared at him, then continued "but maybe it really was for the best. In any case, it's part of the job of parents to make tough decisions. Now it's all in the past and we all have to get on with things as they are."
"It wasn't for the best," I said bitterly. "Now Kenny hates me."
"What makes you think that?" Mum asked. "He may have forgotten you, but I really doubt he hates you."
"I just talked to him and I can tell he thinks I dumped him."
"T-talked to him?" Mum stuttered.
"Yeah. Ya know, on the phone," I said snidely.
"Don't use that tone with your mother!" Dad scolded, putting down his cutlery and glaring at me. "Now apologise to her."
"What for? All I said was that I talked to him on the phone," I replied, pretending a wounded innocence.
"You know very well, young man," he said sternly. "It wasn't what you said, but the way you said it."
"She split me and Kenny up and you expect me to be nice and pretend it doesn't matter?" I protested, allowing all my pent up anger and resentment to come to the surface.
"She's your mother and you will apologise or go to your room immediately!" he ordered.
That was the closest I'd ever heard him get to actually shouting, but I wasn't in the mood for backing down. So I threw my cutlery onto my plate and stormed upstairs. It was only after I'd slammed my bedroom door and thrown myself on my bed that I realised I was still hungry. In an attempt to take my mind off that, I started thinking about what to do about Kenny.
Even if he didn't want to be friends again, I felt I owed it to both of us to make sure he knew that it wasn't our fault, but a conspiracy of adults that had caused us to lose contact. There didn't seem to be much point in phoning him again because even if he took the call, he'd probably hang up again before I could explain things. Without either his mobile number or e-mail address, my only option seemed to be to write a letter and post it. So I sat at my computer and started writing.
With my lack of practice at writing letters it might have been expected that it would have been difficult, but it turned out to be very easy. The things I needed to tell him and all the feelings associated with them just poured out, and before I knew it, the letter was complete. However, on reading what I'd written, I realised that much of it was almost incoherent and some of it was gibberish. So, with a sigh, I set about reorganising my thoughts and rewriting the whole thing. While I was doing that, I heard Dad's distinctive tapping on my door and I called out for him to come in.
"You've upset your mother and you need to go and apologise," he said firmly as soon as he entered the room. When I didn't respond, he added, "She's a good person and doesn't deserve the way you spoke to her. She didn't have to let you see Kenny's e-mails…"
"But she'd promised him!" I interrupted.
"And being a good person, she kept her promise…"
"After four years!" I interrupted again.
"She kept her promise even though she knew it would probably cause trouble. I know you were upset when Kenny went away, but we thought you'd soon get over it. Sometimes parents have to do things that their kids don't like because in the long run it's best for them." He paused, smiling gently. "Your mum said you screamed your head off when you had your inoculations as a baby. Surely a quick jab of pain is better than getting some horrible disease."
"That's different," I said, still sulking.
"Yes, I know," he said and sighed. "Parents are only human and sometimes they don't make the right decisions, but that doesn't mean they're not trying to do what's best. If you want people to forgive your mistakes, you have to forgive theirs. Now, come down and tell your mum you're sorry you hurt her feelings."
Although I didn't say anything, he could obviously tell that my resolve was weakening, and before turning to leave, he gave it a decisive blow. "Your mum's just made tea to go with the chocolate cake."
My stomach rumbled and after a brief pause I followed him downstairs. Mum graciously accepted my mumbled apology and my parents chatted to each other while we ate the cake, but I remained silent as I tried to maintain a semblance of pride and dignity. Dad finished first and took his plate and mug to the kitchen, leaving Mum and me alone at the table.
"You said you'd talked to Kenny on the phone," she said. Although it was a statement, it implied a question to which she expected a response.
"I worked out where he is and phoned him."
"And I gather that didn't go too well," she said sympathetically.
"He hung up on me before I could explain it wasn't my fault," I said bitterly, giving her an accusatory look.
"It's been a long time. His mum was sure he'd put it all behind him," she replied sadly. "I hope you'll do the same."
"I've never forgotten him. I can't just forget the best friend I've ever had!" I protested. Then, more calmly, I added "I've just started writing him a letter."
"Do you really think that's wise?" she asked, frowning.
"I don't care if it's wise. I need to make sure he knows that I always wanted to stay friends with him and that I never dumped him."
"And if he still doesn't want to be friends again, won't that hurt you even more?"
"But at least I'll know for sure," I pointed out firmly.
Although we'd both finished our cake and tea, we remained at the table, with me staring sullenly into my empty mug. After a while she sighed and said "Well, I think you're making a mistake and you should be prepared for the worst. Go ahead and write the letter, but think carefully before you post it."
When I got back to my room, I continued working on another draft of the letter. As the following day was Sunday and there was no postal collection, there was no point in posting it before Monday. So I had a whole day to follow her advice and think about it. One thing that did occur to me was that if his feelings toward me were as negative as I thought, he might not believe my assertion that our parents had been part of a conspiracy to prevent us from staying in touch. So on Sunday evening I pointed out that potential problem to my mum.
"I suppose that's possible," she responded, "but that's part of the risk you take if you write to him."
"Well," I said tentatively, "I thought of something that might help. Maybe you could put a little note in the envelope with my letter."
"If you want me to sign some sort of confession, as if I'd done something wrong," she responded vehemently, "it's not going to happen!"
"No, I didn't mean it like that," I said placatingly. "I just meant maybe you could just write a line confirming that I didn't see the emails he sent me until a couple of days ago. You don't have to say why."
She was clearly unhappy and frowned at me for a few seconds before she replied "Okay, then. Just one line and just saying that."
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