‘Tell me about when you were little, Mummy.’
‘I can hardly remember,’ I say. ‘It was so long ago. Shouldn’t you be going to sleep anyway?’ I pat the duvet, encouragingly.
He shakes his head. ‘No. Can I tell you something?’
I nod. ‘Of course. Anything.’
‘I’m actually quite terrified when you leave me alone here.’
‘You are? But why?’ I look at him, earnest in the pool of light coming from the bedside lamp. Then I look around. The room is an attic one. Its window is closed and the blind down. The rows of books in the bookcase at the end of the bed look back at me, in a friendly way, I think. At the other side of the room, his special books sit on top of his toy storage chest: the Roald Dahl ones and the spaces where the Tom Palmer ones should be (but those are so special they currently live right next to the bed). Then there’s his play tent – a red and gold striped scaled-down Big Top – with its door held back on its Velcro fastenings. In this light, it’s black inside there. And then there are the windows; he cut them himself. I was cross – of course I was – but he said, ‘I wanted to see out.’ Behind the tent is the small door leading into the eaves storage. I’ve never said so but this is what I wouldn’t like if I was six and sleeping in this room. The door isn’t a snug fit in its frame. We’ve wedged it tight with folded paper, like you do with a wobbly table in a restaurant, but sometimes it comes loose and then there’s a soft banging sound, barely perceptible until you know what you’re listening for. And there’s always a draught, even though the roof is sound and the tiles where they should be.
I smile and move the tent further back against the eaves’ door. ‘What sort of story would you like?’
He smiles too, and I imagine I can see his body relax against the mattress. ‘About your rabbit. What was her name?’
‘That story about her and your cat. What happened?’
He knows the tale well enough to tell himself now but I pick up his hand and hold it between my own as I begin.
My rabbit was huge. The biggest rabbit I’d ever seen. She was half Chinchilla Giganta, you see, but, of course, she was still only a rabbit and I was always very careful when I let her out to run. I’d shut the dogs away and the cat, too. But one day I forgot to lock the cat door and as I was standing by the greenhouse, the cat streaked by me. Now, she was a small cat but fierce with it and absolutely the animal boss…..
‘Tell me about the dogs and their beds.’
Ah yes. Well, one morning we came downstairs to find the cat asleep in the middle of the Dalmatian’s bed. The Dalmatian was curled up in the Irish Setter’s bed and the Irish Setter, a huge, gangling animal, was balanced across the top of the cat’s small wicker basket. Yes, that cat had things her own way.
‘But not with Bramble,’ he says, his eyes bright.
No, not with her. So the cat sprinted down the path towards the lawn. I shrieked but she ignored me. And, in another breath, she was right behind Bramble. Perhaps my shriek had warned Bramble, perhaps Bramble sensed her coming up behind her; either way, that big white rabbit turned round to face the cat, stood up on her hind legs, raised her forepaws like an attacking grizzly and brought them down on the cat’s head. Then she turned around and kicked the cat with her back legs. The cat screamed – I’d never heard a cat scream before – and shot up the apple tree.
‘And it was hours before you could get her down again.’ He can’t resist finishing the end of the story.
‘That’s right. It was.’
Later, much later, when he’s finally asleep, I hold my head close to his and listen to his breathing. There’s a Tom Palmer book resting on his pillow, and another under the duvet on his chest. I leave them there. And as I go, taking care to leave the door fully ajar so the warm light from the landing fills his doorway, my heart swells a little at the comfort these stories – mine and those of others – are giving this little boy.