The letter to Kenny was posted the following morning while I was on my way to school and included in it were my e-mail address and mobile number. Because I felt sure that he'd realise that I hadn't dumped him and that I wanted to be friends again, I'd hoped that he'd phone me soon after he read it. However, by Thursday I still hadn't heard from him and had become concerned. Late on Friday evening I received an email.
Thanks for the letter. It's good to know that you didn't dump me and it's sad that you thought I'd not tried to contact you. Some of Mum's decisions were a bit dubious after she got ill.
Anyway, for a long time after I moved here I was angry and resented you, but that faded and I moved on.
You say you'd like to be friends again, but we've got to be realistic. I've got a new life and new friends. I've changed a lot in four years and you probably have, too. The two kids who were friends have gone and we can't go back to them. The new Ken and new Sam are different people who probably won't have enough in common to become friends. You might not even like the person I am now.
Besides that, we now live a long way apart. It takes over an hour to get from here to there. So even if we'd stayed friends we couldn't have met up very often.
Now that we know the real situation we don't need to be annoyed with each other about what happened. We can have happy memories of when we were friends, but is there really any point in trying to start a new friendship?
Best wishes for the future,
P S No one calls me Kenny any more.
When I finished reading that, I felt like I'd been kicked in the guts. So I curled up on my bed and waited for the pain to die down enough for me to be able to think. Eventually, finding it hard to believe that Kenny could be so cold hearted, I forced myself to read the e-mail again, just in case I'd missed a faint glimmer of warmth. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking and maybe it was a case of seeing what I wanted to see, but it struck me that there might have been some significance in the fact that his apparently negative reference to starting a new friendship was phrased as a question. That gave me enough hope to spur me to write a reply.
Thanks for the e-mail and for being honest with me about how you feel.
My feelings are that you're the best friend I've ever had and even when I was really pissed off at you I never stopped thinking of you as my best friend. So for you it may seem like we'd have to start a new friendship, but for me it would be carrying on where we left off.
No matter how you've changed, how can you possibly think that I might not like you now? You can't have changed so much that you've gone from being a very good person to a very bad person and even if you were a bit bad, I'd still like you at least a bit. :)
You ask if there's any point in starting a new friendship. Well, first I don't accept it would be new one, but even if it was, isn't it always a good thing to make new friends? Does there have to be a specific point to making friends?
Of course we're not exactly next-door neighbours, but it's not the other side of the world. After all, didn't you come back home to your mum at least some weekends? I don't mind spending an hour or so on the bus and there's the phone and e-mails. And who knows what will happen in future? Will you lose all the friends you have now if you move away for uni or to get a job? And in a couple of years maybe one of us will get a car and so the trip won't take as long as on the bus.
Anyway, what is there to lose by trying to be friends?
Please think about it and get back in touch.
Still your friend,
On Sunday afternoon, after what seemed like an eternity of anxious waiting, Kenny phoned.
"You're very persistent with your phone calls, letters and e-mails," he said as soon as I'd answered the phone. Fortunately he sounded more amused than annoyed.
"Actually, there was only one of each," I pointed out a little nervously. "Anyway, I lost my best friend then found out that he hadn't dumped me after all. Surely you'd expect me to be anxious to get in touch. What I don't understand is why you're so… er… well, cold about it."
"It was years ago," he said, his voice neutral and with no trace of the earlier amusement. "I don't need a protector anymore and I never wanted pity."
"P-protector? Pity?" I stuttered, confused. "What on earth are you talking about?"
"All the times you got into fights to protect me from the kids who were calling me names."
"I wasn't protecting you," I protested when I began to understand what he meant. "I hit them because they pissed me off and I lost my temper. Did you really think I did it because I felt sorry for you?"
"Well, not at the time," he said, sounding less sure of himself, "but I started to wonder about it after you didn't reply to my e-mails. When I thought about why you didn't want to be friends anymore, I started wondering why you'd been my friend at all. I thought it was because you felt sorry for me and then I got even more annoyed at you."
"I am your friend," I said, deliberately using the present tense, "because I like you. I've always enjoyed being with you. I admired you. So why would I feel sorry for you?"
"My limp, my seizures, my helmet…"
"I loved your helmet," I interrupted, then immediately felt very embarrassed. "The rest were just things that were unusual, not pitiable, especially once I knew how to make sure the seizures didn't hurt you."
"Well, anyway," he said, sounding a little flustered, "it was a long time ago. I've changed now and I'm sure you have, too."
"We changed a lot in the six years from when we were just five years old, but we always stayed best friends."
There was a long silence before he replied and when he did he sounded almost embarrassed. "Erm… actually, I've got a new best friend now."
Although that news didn't really surprise me, it still hurt. "You're the only best friend I've ever had. Maybe it's not possible to have two at the same time, but if I can't be your best friend, can't we at least be very good friends?"
"We live a long way apart now and we'd hardly get to see one another. So how could we become friends again?"
Although I was a little irritated that he'd again brought up a point that I'd already answered, I replied patiently "As far as I'm concerned we never really stopped being friends, even when I thought you'd dumped me. I thought about you all the time and wondered how you were…"
"All the time?" he interrupted doubtfully.
"Well, all the time at first, then maybe just a few times a day," I said wrily. "Didn't you think about me?"
"I tried not to."
Although the response hurt me, at least it could be interpreted as implying that he did think about me. Then, trying to set aside my hurt feelings and determined to press ahead with more important matters, I said, "Anyway, it's not all that far and there's the phone and e-mails if we run out of phone and text credits."
"You really are persistent," he said. It sounded like an accusation, but with hints of amusement and resignation.
"So, when can I come and see you?" I asked, sensing a softening of his attitude and wishing to strike while the iron was hot.
"Come and see me? Come here?" he said, startled.
"Yeah. How about next weekend? Is Saturday or Sunday better for you?"
"Erm… well…" he replied, "Erm… let me think about it and get back to you."
"Does that mean the weekend is okay, but you need to decide which day?"
"Erm, yeah, okay."
Although he seemed a bit hesitant, I was glad that I could no longer detect any real reluctance. In fact, I thought he sounded a little pleased, but maybe that was just wishful thinking.
"So send me an e-mail with directions of how to get there and we can keep in touch by phone until I see you."
"Won't you need to ask your parents?"
"Yeah, but after what Mum did, she owes me big time. She'd need a bloody good reason to try and stop me," I said confidently. "Anyway, I'll let you know as soon as I've confirmed it with them."
By Wednesday evening it'd been arranged that I'd take the bus to Linchester on the Sunday morning, then take a bus from the city centre to arrive at St Anthony's at around noon. Kenny said that he'd arrange for me to have lunch there and I was pleased to find that there would be about four hours to spend with him before I'd have set off back to the bus station in Linchester. In the three days before the trip I was filled with a mixture of elation, excitement and nervousness and on the Saturday night I managed to get only a little sleep.
St Anthony's was a complex of buildings surrounded by a tall security fence, but the gate was open and just inside was a car park in which there were only a few cars and a minibus. There was no one in sight and I guessed that most students went home at weekends. The only way to get beyond the car park was through the large modern main building that was one storey and made from sandy-beige bricks. There was a wide set of glass double doors under a large sign which said 'Reception' and just inside the doors was a small anteroom with another set of glass doors next to which was a card reader.
On my left was a large window made of frosted glass above which was another sign with 'Reception' in gold letters. Immediately below the sign and set into the large window was a small section of glass in its own smaller frame. Below that was a brass button on a wooden panel that bore the lettering 'Please Ring For Attention'. A couple of seconds after I rang the bell the smaller section of glass slid sideways and the face and upper body of a very attractive girl appeared. She appeared to be a little older than I, and her lustrous black hair, which fell to the shoulders of her cream blouse, emphasised her pale skin and beautiful green eyes.
"Hello," she greeted me with a smile. "How may I help?"
My nervousness was decreased a little when I immediately recognised her voice as that of the young woman who'd answered on the occasion I'd phoned the centre. "My name's Sam Kennedy. I'm here to see Ken Doyle."
"Ah, yes. He said he was expecting you," she said. She frowned for a moment before adding "He went outside a few minutes ago with his roommate, but I thought he'd be back by now. Why don't you try calling his mobile?"
I did as she suggested, and it rang several times before he picked up.
"Oh. Er, hi." he said, sounding a little breathless. "Where are you?"
"At Reception. I'm a bit early."
"Okay, I'll be there as soon as I can. It might be a few minutes cos I'm a bit busy."
"Well, I suppose I can wait," I said, feeling a little disappointed.
"You're welcome to wait inside," the girl said, obviously having overheard me. "I'll buzz you through."
There was a brief buzzing sound and a click as the inner doors were unlocked and when I opened the door she spoke again. "Or if you want, you can go and see if he's still in the gardens."
"No, it's okay. I'll wait," I said, not wanting to risk getting lost.
"Well, just let me know if you need anything else." She smiled and closed the glass panel.
I stepped into a large atrium with several hallways going off in different directions. On my left, just inside the doorway, was a wooden door that I guessed led into the receptionist's office. On my right there were some chairs and small tables on which were an assortment of magazines. I went and sat on one of the chairs that faced the Reception door, but I didn't pick up any of the magazines. Because I'd got the connecting bus from the bus station to St Anthony's more quickly than anticipated, I'd arrived almost twenty minutes earlier than expected. So I wasn't surprised that Kenny hadn't been there to greet me. However, as the minutes crept by, I grew more and more nervous, until eventually I heard a door bang and the sound of voices. Turning to my right, I saw two teenage boys standing by a doorway opposite the main entrance.
One of the boys was obviously Kenny and he clearly hadn't seen me because he was looking around with a slightly anxious expression. The other boy, who had ginger-blond hair and looked as if he might be a little older, had an arm over Kenny's shoulders. I stood up to make my presence known, then smiled and nervously raised a hand in greeting. As the two approached, I noticed that the other boy was hobbling a little and that Kenny was helping to support him. Both of them were wearing dark blue tee shirts, but whereas Kenny had blue jeans, the other boy had black shorts. Then I noticed that the lower part of the other boy's right leg was a prosthesis.
"K-Kenny. Sorry. Ken," I stuttered when they stopped a couple of yards from me. Without conscious thought the habit that had become part of my childhood made me take a step forward and my arms twitched as I realised what I was doing and aborted the hug I was about to give him. Even if the two of us had been alone, I wouldn't have risked his likely negative reaction to an uninvited physical contact.
"Sam," he replied, looking me over. "I wasn't sure if you'd come."
His words shocked me and I wondered how he could possibly have thought that I might not turn up. Surely he knew that even if there'd been some emergency, I would've phoned him. Then I noticed something.
"You're not wearing your helmet," I said.
"I've got new meds now and haven't had a seizure for almost three years. So I've not needed the stupid helmet for a couple of years. Actually, I probably hadn't really needed it before that, but Mum was always over cautious." Kenny said and smiled wrily. "Anyway, hope you haven't been waiting too long. Roy had a bit of a problem with his new foot."
Roy, whose pale blue eyes had been fixed on me in a way that had seemed far from friendly, turned to Kenny with a look of what seemed to be a mixture of irritation and playfulness and said, "It's not a foot. It's a high-tech prosthetic. And it doesn't fit properly."
"I'm sure it fits okay, but you should break it in a bit longer before trying to race around on it," Kenny replied with a hint of exasperation. Then, as if suddenly remembering his manners, Kenny turned his head to me and added "Oh, this is Roy, my best friend. Roy, this is Sam."
From the way he'd said 'best friend' it was clear he was making a point and in an attempt to hide my hurt feelings I glanced down toward Roy's prosthesis. Seeing the direction of my gaze, Roy glared at me.
"So you're Sam," he said, almost as if he were accusing me of a crime.
Kenny, who seemed a little embarrassed by the strained atmosphere, said, "Let's get back to our room so you can see to your leg."
We made our way in silence through a series of corridors with Roy limping and holding onto Kenny's shoulder for support. As they proceeded in front of me, I noticed that Kenny's left foot still dragged a little, but I was quickly distracted by the feeling of jealousy engendered by the sight of their obvious emotional closeness and their comfortable physical contact. Eventually, we reached a hallway with four numbered doors along its length. The near end of the corridor expanded to become a small kitchen-diner area and at the far end were two doors. Kenny and Roy opened the nearest numbered door and I followed them inside.
The room was much bigger than I'd expected, with a large gap between the two beds that were against the walls on my left and right. Directly opposite the door was a large window, below which was a pair of small desks on each of which was a closed laptop and next to each desk was a large chest of drawers. There were more drawers built into the base of each bed, and at the foot of each bed was a large wardrobe. All the furniture was made of wood and appeared to be almost new, although there were several scuff marks at around knee-height.
On the left, just inside the door, a TV was mounted on the wall and below that was a cupboard. On the other side of the door was a washbasin, next to which a pair of crutches and a collapsed folding wheelchair leaned against the wall. The wall on my right was covered in posters, many of which seemed to feature well endowed young women, though some related to the recent Paralympics. The opposite wall had fewer posters, mostly from science-fiction movies, together with some featuring high performance sports cars. When I looked more closely, I noticed large gaps between the posters and I got the impression that some had recently been taken down.
With a sigh of relief Roy immediately sat on the bed below the buxom young women and began to look closely at the places where the prosthesis came into contact with what looked like some sort of large stocking on his leg. He began disconnecting it then he paused and looked up at me.
"Don't you know it's rude to stare?" he said, his eyes narrowing.
"I wasn't staring," I protested. "I was just trying to work out how it's attached."
Roy made a sort of grunting sound and returned to his task.
"It's almost an hour until lunch, so there's time for me to make a cuppa. Does anyone else want one?" Kenny said. His apparent amusement seemed odd, bearing in mind that it was clear that his new best friend seemed to have taken a dislike to me.
"Yes, please," I said, hoping it would provide a break in the tense atmosphere between Roy and me.
"I'd rather have some apple juice. I'm really parched," Roy said.
I followed Kenny out of the room and into the kitchen area, where he filled the kettle and switched it on. Then he went to the refrigerator, took out a carton of apple juice and poured some into a large glass.
"You're taller," I said, just to break the silence before it became too uncomfortable.
"We both are," he replied, giving me a strange look. "It's called growing up."
I couldn't hold back a brief giggle, but I quickly recovered and said, "No, I mean you're taller than me now. Don't you remember I always used to be taller than you?"
"Yeah, I remember and I remember your stupid giggle." His smile and almost playful tone of voice contradicted his apparently derogatory description of my giggle. So I wasn't particularly offended.
"Your hair's quite a bit longer now," I said, just trying to keep the conversation going.
"I see you still keep yours very short," he said. A memory of a younger Kenny reaching out to stroke my head flashed through my mind, but even before it faded, he spoke again. "I'm going for a pee. Will you take this to Roy?"
Without waiting for a reply, he handed me the glass and set off toward the doors at the other end of the corridor. When I returned to their room, I saw that Roy was now sitting with his back propped against pillows at the head of his bed. The prosthesis had been removed and I could see that his right leg was missing from a few inches below the knee. He was rubbing some sort of ointment into an area of red skin on the stump.
"Kenny's gone for a pee," I announced rather unnecessarily as I handed him the glass. My nervousness had obviously removed my ability to filter out inappropriate topics of conversation.
"That's the problem with having a weak bladder," Roy said, then downed half of the juice in a couple of quick gulps. "Wasn't Ken the same when you were friends?"
"As far as I'm concerned we're still friends." I replied irritably, annoyed both by his implication and by the way he'd emphasised 'Ken'.
At first he seemed a little surprised by my response, but he quickly recovered and frowned before saying, "I meant to say when you were at school together."
"Well, yeah, I s'pose," I said, slightly mollified. "I'd almost forgotten how useful it was for him to have a medical excuse to go to the loo whenever a class got even more boring than usual."
He smiled a little and as he took another drink from the glass, I noticed that his prosthesis had been added to the top of a small untidy pile of clothes at the foot of the bed.
"Kenny mentioned that it's new," I said, nodding my head in the prosthesis. "What was wrong with the old one?"
"Nothing. It was wearing out and I just grew out of it," he replied. Then in response to my look of puzzlement he added "Ya know, like when you grow out of your shoes."
"Oh, right," I said, realising it should have been obvious if I'd thought about it. "It looks complicated to put on."
"Not when you get used to it," he replied, giving me a strange look. Then he added "Ken was right. You really are unusual."
"What?" I said, thinking that I was being mildly insulted.
"Well, most strangers would either pretend they didn't see anything at all or stare at my stump rather than the prosthetic."
"Oh. Sorry," I said, still not quite understanding his point. Then, feeling uncomfortable under his gaze, I added "I'd better go and see how the tea's doing."
On returning to the kitchen area I found Kenny using a spoon to squeeze and stir tea bags that were steeping in mugs of freshly boiled water. When he looked up and saw me, he smiled in a way that made me have a brief vision of the Kenny I used to know.
"Milk and sugar?" he said.
"Milk, no sugar, please."
"Same as me then," he said as he went to get the milk from the fridge. Then he returned to the mugs and squeezed the tea bags once more before throwing them in the swing-bin. While he added milk to the mugs he added "You took a while giving Roy his drink."
"We had a bit of a chat."
"Oh," he said quietly. The expression on his face appeared to indicate a mixture of concern and surprise.
When we got back to his room with our tea, Roy was still sitting on his bed and had already finished his juice. What looked like an elasticated stocking covered the stump up to about six inches above the knee. Kenny sat on his own bed and after a moment's hesitation I sat in a chair next to one of the small desks.
"How is it?" Kenny asked, nodding toward Roy's leg.
"It'll be okay. It needs to be fitted a bit tighter and maybe the padding on the sleeve could do with a tweak."
"I told you not to overdo it while it's still relatively new," Kenny said in a mildly scolding tone. "You should break it in gently."
"It needs to be ready for Sports Day next week and I need to get fit."
"You're already fit," Kenny replied. Then apparently realising that I was being left out of the conversation, he turned to me and added "Roy's a bit of a sports fanatic."
"Yeah," I said, grateful for Kenny's show of consideration. "I'd sort of guessed that from the posters."
"Our school's having its annual Sports Day next week," Kenny said. Then with a mischievous glance at Roy he added "And there's a certain special person that Roy wants to impress."
"Ken!" Roy growled the rebuke, blushing deeply.
"St Anthony's has a Sports Day?" I asked, a little surprised.
"No, the local school that Roy and I go to. Eileen, the raven-haired beauty, goes there too and Roy's got the hots for her," Kenny told me in a teasing tone. Then, while poor Roy was still trying to overcome his embarrassment, he continued "Actually, you just met her. She's the gorgeous girl at Reception."
Despite Roy's apparent antagonism toward me, I felt sympathy for him and thought that I should make some comment, but at first I didn't know what to say. Eventually I came up with something that managed to be both banal and awkward. "She's very pretty and looks too young to be staff. So I suppose she must be a resident."
"She's not really a resident. She's actually the Director's daughter and sometimes earns a bit of spending money by working here at weekends," Kenny informed me.
"Director?" I said.
"He's the guy in charge. He and his family live in the grounds," Kenny said. Then with a shake of his head and a mock-sad smile he added "And it seems his poor daughter's mental health is in doubt."
"Oh, really?" I said. "She seemed fine to me."
"Really. After all, would any sane girl be dating Roy?"
I couldn't help laughing and Roy, who couldn't find anything better at hand, leaned over to pick up a tee shirt from the pile of clothes at the bottom of his bed and threw it at Kenny. However, it wasn't sufficiently aerodynamic to cover the distance and fell on the floor between the beds. Roy quickly recovered his composure and with remarkable agility got off the bed and hopped around the wardrobe to grab the crutches.
"I'm going to get cleaned up before lunch," he announced.
"You don't have much time," Kenny said.
"Almost twenty minutes. That's loads of time," Roy replied, getting clean shorts and underwear from a couple of drawers. He threw a towel over his shoulder and managing to grip the clothing and use the crutches at the same time, he left the room.
After his departure it seemed that neither Kenny nor I could think of anything to say and the quiet was broken only by the fading sounds of Roy's progress along the corridor. Eventually, as the silence lengthened, we both felt the need to speak at the same time.
"How…" we both said, almost in unison. Then we both grinned, amused at the coincidence of word and timing.
"You first," Kenny prompted.
"How long have you and Roy been roommates?"
"About three years. Ever since he arrived here," he said. Looking very serious, he continued "I don't know what I would've done if he hadn't been here for me when Mum died."
"I wish I could have been there for you too, but I'm glad you had someone," I said, my sadness and regret tinged by jealousy. Then as another silence fell, I added "What were you going to say?"
"Oh, I was just going to ask how things were with your mum. You still seemed pretty pissed off with her when we spoke on the phone."
"I'm still a bit annoyed with her, but I think that now she knows she made a mistake, though she hasn't actually admitted it in words and now we've got back together again, with Mum owing me…" I paused, puzzled by his sudden frown. "Now we can carry on where we left off."
"I hope Roy won't be much longer," Kenny said, looking at his watch and obviously anxious to change the subject. "It doesn't really matter what time we get to lunch, but if we leave it too long all the best stuff will be gone."
In order to break the ensuing silence, I decided to ask a question. "What happened to Roy's leg? I was going to ask him, but then wasn't sure if it would upset him, especially as he already seems not to like me."
"He just doesn't understand you, but I'm sure if he did, he wouldn't mind you asking," he replied enigmatically. "Anyway, he was run over by a van."
For some reason that exchange seemed to ease the conversation that had begun so awkwardly and we went on to talk about what we'd been doing, especially in our respective schools. It emerged that while I'd already decided that I wanted a career in science, he still had no real idea what he wanted to do, though he thought architecture might be interesting.
When Roy returned wearing his clean shorts he tossed his dirty clothes under the sink and hung the wet towel next to the door. Kenny immediately announced that it was time for us to go to lunch and realising that I needed to empty my bladder, I stood up and asked him if the toilet was at the far end of the corridor. He confirmed that it was and that it was the door on the left, with the door on the right leading to bathrooms and showers.
When I approached their room after visiting the toilet, the door was partially ajar and so I could hear Kenny speaking, but at first couldn't distinguish any words apart from my own name. The fact that he might be talking about me was my justification for approaching the door quietly and eavesdropping, which is something that I wouldn't normally have done.
"You were right. He's certainly weird," Roy said. "Or at least very unusual."
"Yeah," Kenny responded with a hint of sadness. "Before he arrived I thought that even if I'd remembered it right, maybe he'd changed since then."
"Hey, don't be glum. Actually, I think it's a nice sort of weird."
"And, well, d'ya think there's a chance he might be…" Kenny said hesitantly, leaving the rest of the question incomplete.
"How the fuck should I know?" Roy replied, apparently greatly amused.
"He's taking a long time," Kenny said after a brief silence. "Maybe I should go and check that he hasn't got lost."
I took that as my cue to tap on the door and go into the room, where I found them sitting on their respective beds, with Roy wearing a fresh pale blue tee shirt. Kenny stood up and said that we should get going and Roy announced that he'd be using his 'wheels' in order to give his sore leg a chance to recover. As soon as we got into the corridor, Roy stopped and looked at me.
"Wheels are so much more elegant than crutches, don't you think?" he said then did a sort of wheeled pirouette.
"Absolutely," I agreed, feeling that perhaps his attitude towards me was thawing a little.
There were fewer than two dozen people in the dining hall when we got there and Kenny and Roy seemed to be on very good terms with all of them. Most of the people in the room were boys and girls aged in their early to mid teens, but there were also four adults sitting together at a table and I presumed they were members of staff. Because only a few students stayed at school at weekends, the lunch was a sort of buffet with soup, a variety of sandwiches and quiches, salads and a selection of fruits. The three of us selected what we wanted and I followed them to one of the empty tables where we sat with Kenny across the table from me and with Roy on my left.
Soon after we started to eat, Eileen entered the room. When I'd seen her earlier, she'd been sitting down. So I hadn't noticed what a great figure she had and I only now appreciated how the slimness of her waist was accentuated by her medium length chocolate coloured skirt. As soon as she saw us, she waved and smiled. Then she went to collect some food before sitting at our table facing Roy. After that, apart from a few polite questions directed at me, her attention appeared to be directed mainly towards Roy and it quickly became clear that she was just as interested in him as he was in her.
Kenny and I didn't say much during the meal, but there was an incident that intrigued me. A few minutes after Eileen had joined us a girl with dark skin and short black hair rolled up beside Kenny. After giving me a shy look the girl, who appeared to be about twelve years old, whispered something to him that made him smile and then she whispered something else that caused him to blush. Then she giggled and wheeled away.
"What was that about?" I asked.
"Oh, that was Lucy," Kenny replied, apparently quite embarrassed. "She… er… just said she thought you're… er… very cute."
Though pleased by the compliment, I also had the feeling that there was more to it than that. So I asked, "Was that all she said?"
"Erm, no. But the other thing was, er, personal."
Kenny and I finished eating before the two lovebirds who shared our table and Kenny sat back waiting, obviously a little impatient for the others to finish.
"Don't wait for us," Roy said when he eventually noticed that our plates were empty and that we weren't going for more food. "I'll be helping Eileen out in Reception when we've finished here."
"But I thought…" Kenny began.
"I know," Roy interrupted him, "but you don't need me to help show Sam around."
"Okay, I'll see you later, then," Kenny said, apparently a little put out.
"Yeah," Roy replied. He turned to me and added "Come and say goodbye before you leave."
I nodded my agreement. Then Kenny and I stood up and left. He began giving me a guided tour, starting with the indoor areas, and I was certainly impressed. There was a small swimming pool, a gym, a physiotherapy suite and the very large 'rec room' was equipped with all sorts of games ranging from table football and table tennis to a variety of game consoles. Next to the rec room was a slightly smaller room with a huge TV set.
"You've got great facilities here," I said as we left the rec room.
"The public can be pretty generous to charities for disabled kids," Kenny said, "especially if it keeps the kids out of sight and out of mind."
Despite the actual words, I couldn't detect any bitterness in his tone and I wondered what was really going through his mind.
"Actually, you're not really disabled," I said, vocalising my thoughts without really considering what I was saying. "Well, not like the others I've seen here."
"You mean I don't look abnormal," he said angrily, stopping and glaring at me.
"No… erm…" I stuttered. "I didn't mean it like that. I'm sorry. I mean I've never thought of you as disabled or abnormal. You're just, well, Kenny."
"As it happens," he said, apparently somewhat mollified, "I probably wouldn't have qualified for being here if my mum hadn't been so ill. If they hadn't allowed me in, the social worker would've had to find somewhere else for me when Mum got too sick."
That prompted me to ask about his roommate. "Roy seems to be able to get about fine. Why can't he live at home?"
"His family have a farm that's miles from anywhere and almost two hours drive from here. There's nowhere near them where he could get the long-term specialist physiotherapy he needed." Then he grinned and added "He used to go home most weekends until he and Eileen became an item."
When the indoor part of the tour had begun, our interactions had all felt a little stilted and formal, but by the time we got outside it seemed that we were both feeling more at ease. The spring sunshine and the walk through the large gardens relaxed me enough to bring up more personal matters.
"I was really sorry to find out about your mum," I said. "No one had even told me she was ill."
His single word response carried a sadness that made me regret bringing up the topic and for a while we were both silent. However, there were other things that I wanted to ask him, not just out of curiosity, but because I hoped that my questions would show that I cared about him.
"Do you have any other relatives and anywhere to go for weekends now?" I asked, not liking the idea of him being stuck at the centre every day of the week.
"Only my mum's brother, Arthur. He lives in New Zealand, which is a bit far to go for a weekend." His lips curled into a small smile and I was relieved that my question hadn't upset him. "Anyway, I've got friends here and when Roy goes home, I usually go with him."
"It's a pity you don't know where your dad is," I said without thinking and immediately regretted it.
"Actually, I do, sort of. He's dead," Kenny said, showing no sign of any emotion.
"I thought he'd just run off when you were a baby."
"He did, but when Mum got very ill she told me that a couple of years after he left she tried to get some child support from him and found out he'd died after being stabbed in a pub brawl."
"Bloody hell. You seem to get all the worst luck," I said sympathetically. I couldn't resist putting my hand on his arm as a gesture of comfort, but although he didn't exactly shrug it off, he did ignore it. Feeling embarrassed, I removed my hand and added "So you've really got no one to look after you."
"I don't need anyone," he said firmly. "When I'm eighteen I get the trust fund that was set up from the life insurance and the sale of the house, and until then I get an allowance that's probably more than you get."
"Still, it's not just about money. It's about having people to care for you."
"Roy and my other friends care about me," he said, frowning at me. "The Director acts as a parent and for anything else I have my social worker. What more do I need?"
Instinctively I felt that he did need more, but I couldn't say exactly what and I couldn't even put my feeling into words. While I was still trying to do so, Kenny looked at his watch.
"It's after three," he said briskly. "If you want, there's time for tea and biscuits before you need to catch your bus."
"That's a great idea. Yes, thanks."
We returned to the small kitchen area near his room and although we didn't say much while he made tea, the silences weren't uncomfortable. When he handed me a mug there was no sign of any biscuits and I was feeling peckish. So decided to jog his memory.
"I thought you promised me biscuits."
"I did," he replied. "They're in my room. If we kept them in here they'd just keep disappearing."
Back in his room he got a selection of biscuits out of one of the cupboards. Then we resumed our previous positions, with him on his bed while I was on the chair. After we'd finished our tea and biscuits a silence fell between us and although we hadn't moved from our respective positions, the distance between us seemed to grow wider. It seemed that the closeness that I'd felt growing between us during the afternoon was beginning to dissipate and I desperately tried to think of something to say that might rescue it.
"Ya know," I said eventually, "I thought you and your mum were angry with me because you blamed me for being sent away."
"I was angry, but not because of that. I never blamed you for that and in fact I thought you blamed me for the accident, but I was really hurt that you'd just dropped me. Even if it had been my fault you broke your arm, I didn't deserve that."
"Of course you didn't," I said. "I was more hurt than angry when I thought you'd dumped me. But now we both know that it wasn't our fault. It was some stupid idea of our parents."
"Yeah," he said and shrugged, as if he didn't really care.
As far as I was concerned, knowing what had really happened had effectively reset our friendship to what it had been. So I couldn't really understand why Kenny didn't seem to feel as I did. Despite knowing that neither of us was at fault, it appeared that he was still reserved and sometimes behaving almost as if we'd only just met.
"So," I said slowly, wanting to get to the bottom of things without making the situation worse, "after you knew it wasn't my fault, why did you seem so reluctant to be friends again?"
"Look, I don't blame you for anything and I'm not angry with you any more," he replied earnestly. He sighed, briefly looked me in the eyes, then averted his gaze. "But for a long time I was really hurt and even though I don't blame you, it's difficult to forget that it hurt so much because I liked you so much."
It felt as if I were listening to a foreign language in which I could translate the individual words, but not the meaning of the sentences. "I don't understand. I was hurt too, but it's all in the past and what I see now is a chance to carry on from where we left off."
"That's because you're the same Sam, just bigger," he said, smiling wanly. "But, well, I'm not the same Kenny and one of the things that changed me was believing for years that my best friend had abandoned me."
Before I could consider that further, Kenny looked at his watch, abruptly stood up and said, "You'd better get going or you'll miss your bus. I'll walk to the bus stop with you."
When we got to the main entrance, Kenny announced that he thought he'd better go for a pee before going to wait at the bus stop with me. When he disappeared through one of the doors around the atrium, I thought I'd see if Roy was in Reception, just in case he wasn't being merely polite when he'd asked me to say goodbye before I left. After I tapped on the door, it took a few seconds before Eileen answered, looking a little flushed. She smiled when she saw me and when I asked if Roy was there she stepped back inside and Roy rolled out.
"I'm just about to go," I announced.
"Where's Ken?" he asked and when I nodded toward the appropriate door, he smiled and said "Ah, gone for a pee. I might have guessed."
"Anyway," I said, "I'm just waiting here cos he said he'd walk to the bus stop with me."
"Well, it's been nice meeting you," he said with a genuine smile. "Hopefully I'll see you again soon."
"Really?" I said doubtfully, the word slipping out before I could edit it.
"What d'ya mean?" he asked, sounding a little hurt.
"Well… erm… I mean, I thought you didn't like me."
He gave a rueful smile, then said, "Okay, maybe I didn't at first, but that was before I met you and you're nothing like I expected."
"What did you expect?" I asked, startled by his honesty.
"Oh, I can't tell you that without breaching confidences."
"Okay, but why should you expect anything?"
"Ken's talked about you a lot," he replied with an enigmatic smile.
"Well, I s'pose that getting in touch again after so long is a big deal for both of us," I said, pleased to think that maybe Kenny hadn't been as indifferent about it as he'd seemed.
"He was talking about you even before that, but just not so much." Then he smiled and added enigmatically "I'm his best friend and he tells me everything."
Before I could absorb the significance of Roy's words, Kenny joined us and apologised for the delay. Having been encouraged by Roy's apparently more positive attitude toward me, I decided that I'd bring up another topic that had been on my mind most of the afternoon.
"I was wondering if I could come again next weekend," I said to Kenny.
"Erm… no, sorry," he replied, looking a little flustered. "Sports Day is on Friday and Roy's parents are coming up for it. Then they'll be taking Roy and me home with them for the weekend."
"Oh," I said, not even trying to hide my disappointment. "What about the following weekend?"
"That might be okay."
Then I had a great idea. "Actually, why don't you come and visit me? That way you can stay the whole weekend and you won't have to dash off like I will on a day trip."
"Mmm, I'm not sure about that," Kenny said doubtfully. "Your mum probably won't be keen on the idea, and…"
"She does like you, ya know," I interrupted him, "and she does owe us big time. So I'm sure she'll be fine with it."
"But then Roy would be stuck here on his own all weekend," Kenny said, offering up another excuse and making me wonder if he was trying to avoid seeing me again.
"Hey! Don't use me as an excuse," Roy chipped in.
Kenny looked at Roy as if he'd turned into a complete stranger and stuttered "B-but..."
"Anyway," Roy interrupted again, giving us a sly wink and tilting his head towards Reception, "it might be good to have the room to myself for a weekend. Sometimes a bit of privacy is nice."
Kenny rolled his eyes and smiled, then turned to me. "Okay, then. But I'll need to get permission from the Director. Now we'd better get going or you'll miss the bus."
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