Children’s Writer in Residence – Rob Keeley
Rob’s books for children have been listed for the International Rubery Book Award and the Bath Children’s Novel Award. Rob has also written for Chain Gang and Newsjack for BBC Radio.
by Rob Keeley
“Liam!” Justin stood outside the cupboard under the stairs, calling through the half-open door. “Will you come out of there? Oh come on, mate, I only coughed once!”
Slowly, very cautiously, Liam opened the door. He was standing as far as he possibly could from his best friend, and had Justin’s Nan’s old headscarf tied around his face.
“You’ve been staying here nearly three weeks,” Justin pointed out. “Even before the lockdown. We’re sharing a room…”
Liam edged away from him. His voice sounded muffled.
“I’m not taking any chances. It’s bad enough Ben was sneezing all over me, last day in school…”
“That was just a cold, Liam!”
“…and stop fingering my phone!” Liam grabbed the smartphone from Justin.
“You’ve got a message!”
Liam fiddled with the phone.
“It’s Mum and Dad. And Astrid. They still can’t get a flight out. Trust them to be in the sun. It was freezing here, this morning.”
“Where is Santa Amelia, anyway?”
“No idea.” Liam scrolled down the message. “They say… they’re OK, no one’s ill. They can stay in the hotel, or go in the gardens. The only food they can get is takeaways…” He frowned, above his scarf. “If there’s a problem here, I’m not hearing it.”
Justin risked edging a little nearer to Liam.
“Are you missing them?”
Liam was silent for a moment. Then he nodded. Justin gave him a look of sympathy.
“They’ll be all right, mate. We all will. We’re gonna have the biggest party ever, when all this is over. The Archbishop of Canterbury said so.” He moved his arm and gave Liam an elbow bump. They had seen footballers doing it.
The front door opened, and what appeared to be a creature from outer space entered. It was wearing a long leather coat that looked like armour, and gloves to match, and had a gigantic plastic space helmet on its head. Only the two recyclable shopping bags spoiled the effect.
“What?” Justin walked along the hall. “I can’t hear you, Mum.”
The alien removed its helmet.
“I said, they’re still out of wipes and disinfectant.” She handed the helmet to Justin. “That was a good idea, babe. Keep the germs away.”
“Lewis had it for his school play,” Justin explained to Liam. “Journey To The Stars.” He hung the helmet up carefully, alongside woolly hats and walking sticks.
Justin’s Mum took a look at Liam.
“Who’s this? The Masked Stranger?”
Liam pulled the scarf off. The face beneath was rather red.
“What did you get?” Justin prodded at the shopping bags.
“Burgers. Giant fish fingers. There wasn’t much fresh stuff.” Justin’s Mum reached into the bag. “We was all standing miles apart. People wiping trolleys… but look what I got!”
She produced a packet of four toilet rolls. Justin stared at them, as if they were enchanted gold.
“Hey!” Abbie, Justin’s younger sister, emerged from the kitchen. With her was Lewis, their elder brother. Abbie had her hands on her hips and chocolate icing down her Durwyn the Dragon apron. She glared at Liam and Justin, who backed away slightly. “Why aren’t you two in class? You’re meant to be doing Maths, and Spelling and Grammar!”
“We done that,” Justin told her. He gave his little sister a guilty look. “Sorry, Abbie.”
“Sorry, Abbie,” said Liam. He nearly said: “Sorry, miss.”
“The Food Tech lesson’s nearly over,” Lewis said. “Abbie’s cake’s in the oven. And I’ve chopped the veg. We can get the soup on, now.”
“This is much more fun than real school.”
“Aren’t you meant to be revising, Lewis?” their Mum said. Lewis was grinning.
“Probably never take the exams anyway.”
“Liam. Justin.” Abbie gave them another glare. Liam and Justin went through into the back room.
Justin’s family had done a fair job of setting up the home school. There was space for three around the coffee table, with beanbags to sit on. There was Lewis’s laptop, currently connected to Station Road Primary’s Learning Zone. There were books of animals and stories and puzzles. There was a board game called WorkOut, which Mr Jenkins had recommended to improve Justin’s Maths. There was a house of cards, almost complete, which had been Liam’s Creative Activity the day before. And there was a full timetable, on a sheet of A3 paper, tacked to the back of the door. Liam glanced at today’s tasks. They were written in pink, in Abbie’s large and untidy hand.
Spelling and Grammar
Help Abbie do the washing up
Football in the yard with our dad
At the bottom it said:
Anyone who bunks off will get detenshun
Liam and Justin sat on the beanbags and finished their Maths. Then Liam stood up, and tried to complete the house of cards. There were just the two to go on top, but getting the angle right was proving difficult. He was trying very hard not to breathe.
“You should do what I do,” said Justin. Liam jumped, and nearly knocked the whole thing over. “Use sellotape. I used to build ‘em on Lego bases, too. Then they can’t fall down.”
Liam gave him a stern look.
“That’s cheating.” He had another go at the top cards. “Aah… this is murder. Why am I doing this?”
“Mum saw it online,” Justin said. “We’re building a tower of balloons, tomorrow. It’s supposed to be good for our mental health.”
“It’s not doing much for mine,” said Liam. Very carefully, he angled the cards, then slowly took his hands away. “Ah… aah…aah! There we go! Who’s the Daddy?”
As if in answer, the door opened to reveal Justin’s Dad, in uniform. His shift was over. Being a postal worker, he was in the essential category.
“How’s the home school going, fellas?”
“It’s all right,” said Liam. “I’m missing the rest of the guys. Mum and Dad too. And Astrid, I guess.”
Justin’s Dad sniffed.
“Is the kitchen on fire?”
Justin grinned. “That’s Lewis’s soup.”
“It’s like a ghost town out there.” Justin’s Dad came over to the table. He glanced at Liam and Justin’s Maths sheets. “Worse than Christmas holidays. Everyone’s indoors. Only saw two other people, all morning. Someone jogging, and someone taking a casserole to an old lady. Hmm.”
Carelessly, he put out a signet-ringed hand and made an adjustment to the top two cards, then fumbled. Liam watched as a day’s work came crashing down. “Oops. Sorry, mate.” Quickly, he moved away. “C’mon. Lunch is ready. Help me set the table.”
He headed out towards the kitchen. Liam stayed where he was, just looking at the pile of cards. Justin bit his lip. Liam glared at him.
“That’s my mental health, lying there.”
Justin found another sympathetic look for Liam. He searched among the mess of stationery on the table, and held up a roll of sellotape. Liam nodded.
“All right. After. Come on.”
They moved across the room and set the dining table. Then the rest of the family came in, and they had the vegetable broth that Lewis had made, with the bread rolls Justin’s Mum had bought. Lewis was looking quite proud of his work.
“It’s Five-A-Day Soup.”
“We’ll have to move on to frozen veg soon,” said Justin’s Mum. “There wasn’t much fresh stuff. It’s Jackie I feel sorry for.” She looked at Liam. “She’s my friend. She’s a nurse. By the time she’s finished at the hospital, got to the shop, everything’s gone.” She turned to Lewis. “Did you take some in for Mrs Caberley, like I told you?”
After the soup, they had the chocolate cake Abbie had baked. There seemed to be more chocolate than cake, and the brightly-coloured chocolate drops she had used to decorate it were turning up when you least expected them, but everyone agreed it was very good. They all helped to do the washing-up. Though Justin’s parents had a dishwasher, they hadn’t been able to buy the tablets for it. Halfway through, Liam and Justin got bored, and started flicking water at each other.
“Hey!” Abbie was playing teacher again. She gave the boys another glare. They went back to drying. “Ooh.” She stared into the sink. “Look at this!”
Amidst the sea of washing-up was the biggest bubble anyone had ever seen. The spring sunshine was peeping through the window, and the overhead light was on. The bubble contained a mini-rainbow, in gold and green and blue and pink and purple. Lewis looked at it.
“Whoa. What you got in there? Secret formula? Mutant washing-up liquid?”
“It’s like magic…” Abbie stared into the coloured lights. “I might write about it, for my story tomorrow. The Magic Bubble…”
“Granting wishes to anyone who had it…” Justin’s Dad came and joined the crowd by the sink. “Anything their heart desired…”
Quickly, he poked it. Abbie’s eyes widened as the bubble disappeared.
Justin’s Dad grinned.
“Come on. Footie.”
The four kids went out into the yard. For a quarter of hour, they kicked a ball around with Justin’s Dad. Then they all went and sat in the back room, wondering what to do next. The timetable said Creative Activity, but no one could think of one. Liam wasn’t in the mood to try another house of cards.
“Ooh.” Justin’s Mum was on the laptop, looking for inspiration. “Look at this.”
“What’s that?” Liam came and peered over her shoulder.
“It’s something called the Stay At Home Literary Festival. There’s some guy putting up… like… writing prompts for kids every day. Never heard of him.”
“This looks like fun, though. Day 1. Pretend you’re Prime Minister for the day. You’re making a speech to the whole country. Write what you’ll say, to help everyone through these tricky times. You can video the speech…”
Liam’s eyes lit up.
Forty minutes later, Liam was ready. He was already in shirt and trousers, and had put on Justin’s best jacket, and a tie loaned by Justin’s Dad. Lewis had his phone, ready to film and tweet. Finding a podium had been a problem, until Abbie remembered the old washbasin from their previous bathroom. It was now balanced precariously on the back room carpet, with Liam holding onto the taps. There was a Union Jack tea-towel hanging from the sideboard behind him.
Lewis hit the record button, and gave Liam a thumbs-up. Liam cleared his throat, and looked at the scrappy handwritten sheet at the bottom of the basin.
“People of Britain. I am your Prime Minister. And I’ve just got one thing to say to you. We’re gonna get through this. And have that party with the Archbishop.”
“It’s a scary time. Some people are ill. Some people are in hospital. Some of us are jumping in the cupboard every time our best mate coughs. But we’ll make it. As another great Prime Minister once said, we have nothing to offer but our blood and sweat and tears, for Harry, Meghan and St George, and Britannia will once again rule the waves.”
He paused. The next bit looked a bit soppy. Liam couldn’t quite believe he’d written it. But it was important to him.
“The main thing is to be kind. Look after your family, and your mates, and everyone. Because we need to help one another through this. Or we’ll have no one to go to the party with. Look at my best mate, and his family. Even though I’d already been there a week, they let me stay in their home, and go to school from their home, and gave me somewhere I can feel safe, even if I can’t let their Dad near my house of cards.”
Justin’s Dad grinned.
“So I thank them, and I thank you. Look after yourselves. Look after everyone. And… I’ll see you at that party!”
There was a moment’s silence.
Then the family burst into wild applause, whoops and cheers.
Check out the further happenings of Liam and Justin in The Alien in the Garage, The (Fairly) Magic Show and The Dinner Club collections, all published by Matador Books (Troubador Publishing Ltd).
© Rob Keeley 2020