“Can you move your bag so I can sit down?” Katarina jumped at the voice and she swung her head round from staring out of the bus window. She had not expected anyone to want to sit next to her, no-one usually did, but the boy she had spoken to earlier – Seamus – stood looking down at her, the same half-grin as before on his face.
“Please?” He added.
“Sorry,” she muttered and pulled the weighty brown shoulder bag onto her knee where it sat like a dull threat, reminding her of the hours of homework ahead. Often, when she had been working at her homework at the kitchen table, she would look up through the window and see Mrs Malcolm pottering round her own kitchen, shooing Ditto off the side though he always seemed to be back there moments later. Katarina hadn’t realised how used to the image she was. She sighed.
“What’s up?” Seamus asked as he dropped his coat on the seat and sat on it. He settled down in a comfortable sprawl so that his leg almost touched hers. She shrank away.
“Nothing, thank you.” She tried to think of something interesting to say but she was unused to talking to older boys. It was something that her parents and teachers discouraged, especially once she had become a teenager.
“Well, why are you looking so miserable then?”
She blushed and tried a smile.
“Something happened?” he asked.
“No, no! Nothing’s wrong.” She shook her head and turned away from him to think what to say next. She watched the pedestrians as if for inspiration and noticed an elderly woman struggling along the pavement, shoulders hunched against a fine, insistent rain. Katarina’s heart leapt. Mrs Malcolm! She rubbed the misty window and stared again. No, it was a stranger. She felt tears well up and fumbled in her bag for a handkerchief which she tried to bring up to her eyes without Seamus noticing. She failed.
“Come on.” He touched her arm again. “It’ll be OK. What’s the matter?”
“Sorry,” she gulped. “Nothing really. Um, homework.” This time her voice came out in a strangled squeak, like a mouse in distress.
“Yeah, it’s a real pain isn’t it? What you got tonight?”
She blew her nose and looked down at her bag. “Maths, sewing.”
“Maths is OK and I always think sewing looks fun but, of course I’m not allowed to do it. It’s languages I can’t do.”
Katarina considered this. She had never heard of a boy expressing an interest in sewing and she wondered about him. But she didn’t like to look up at him yet because she thought her face might be blotchy and red and she wasn’t sure she had blown her nose successfully. In the end she stared at her lap and fiddled with the end of her plait before saying: “They’re OK, languages. My mother taught me quite a bit you see. She used to be a language teacher and now does a bit of tutoring when I’m at school.”
“Some people have all the luck! I wish my dad could do that. I’m never going to pass my exams at this rate.” She glanced sideways at him and saw a flash of worry cross his face.
“Anyway,” he brightened. “I’m Seamus McIntyre.” He held out his hand in greeting and she placed hers tentatively in his where it was engulfed in his strong grip. They shook hands and he added: “I think I live just a couple of streets away from you. Do you get off by the postbox?”
“I’m the next stop, the telephone box!” His grin widened. “Tell you what! I could help you with your Maths if you wanted.”
Katarina forgot her worries about her nose and stared up at him. “I don’t think I’d be allowed, I mean….” She felt suddenly stupid and childish. “I don’t think it would be allowed by, er, people, school.”
“Why not? It’s help with school work. We’re meant to work hard and help each other. The school says so. Don’t you remember?” He raised his voice a pitch and began “As students of the Academy, you will all strive to do your best and to help those we meet.”
“Shh!” Katarina gave a small snort of laughter. Seamus sounded uncannily like the headteacher, Mrs Jennings.
“So, we are meant to help those we meet. I have met you and you need help.”
“I usually do my homework with my parents there,” she replied.
“That’s fine. I don’t mind meeting your parents. And anyway, maybe you or your mum could help me with my languages.” He gave her a hopeful smile. “Are your parents at home?” he asked.
“My mother will be.”
“Well then, I’ll come to the door with you and ask her if I can help you.” He paused. “If you want me to, that is.”
Katarina thought. She did not know whether she wanted him to or not, but it might brighten up the evening a little. There was precious little else to look forward to.
They got off the bus together and set off along the road towards her house.
“You must have heard a lot of noise last night when they took the old lady,” he said.
“Bad, wasn’t it?”
She did not know how to reply.
“The noise I mean?” he added.
“Kept me awake.”
“Yes.” She wished he would be quiet, or at least not talk about Mrs Malcolm.
They rounded the corner into her street. Seamus stopped.
“Look,” he hissed. Coming out of Mrs Malcolm’s house were men dressed in black, carrying plastic bags, and other men in overalls waiting with boards and hammers. Katarina stopped too and stared.
One of the men turned and looked straight at them. He was tall and straight as a metal pole, and his face was a mask of anger.
“Nothing to see here!” he snapped. It was the same spikey voice she had heard last night. Katarina dropped her gaze. She walked on, past Mrs Malcolm’s house, straight to hers. At the gate she turned. “I think it’s best that I do my own homework,” she said.
Seamus glanced at the men and back at her. He nodded. “Bye!” he called.
She gave him a brief wave and pushed open the front door. It was only later that she wondered how Seamus could have heard any noise last night from two streets away.