Sam slashed his way through the undergrowth, the fear knotting like wire in his belly, the incriminating blue homework diary burning guiltily in his backpack. He knew there was no getting out of this.
Despite the bleakness of his mood the day was a beautiful one. The afternoon sky stretched out in unbroken blue as far as he could see, staring at its own reflection in the flat surface of the twisting river.
Any other day and Sam would have been thrilled. It was Wednesday. Dad played skittles on a Wednesday and then, of course, off to the bar afterwards for a beer, or eight, which gave Sam the entire afternoon to please himself. He would spend it with Mr Arnold at the allotment, drinking plasticky tea from a flask and digging his fingers deep into rich smelling earth till the nails grew black and filthy.
If he timed it right and got home just after eight, Dad would be dozing beerily or even passed out in his chair and Sam could usually get away with creeping in and pretending he’d been home for hours. Skittle days almost never hurt.
But this Wednesday Sam had to get home before Dad was asleep because he needed the homework diary signed. This meant entering the Danger Zone - that hour when laughter could turn to rage in a heartbeat - and the big red F in the maths section meant that, this week, rage was a certainty.
He emerged from the tangle of weeds and dogwood and pussy willow onto the banks of the river, where neat allotments stood side by side, like an intricate patchwork quilt. Mr Arnold waved and smiled to see Sam. Sam did not smile back. He threw himself sullenly into one of Mr Arnold’s folding chairs.
Mr Arnold didn’t say anything. After a few moments he unwrapped three cold pork pies from their paper wrapping and handed one to Sam. He took it wordlessly and ate it.
“I failed my maths,” said Sam, fighting to keep the tears from his voice. “Dad’s gonna kill me.”
“Well what good is maths anyway?” said Mr Arnold “Can’t eat maths - except pie thagoras - eh?”
This earned him a watery smile.
“How’s your dad going to find out, anyway? I ain’t gonna say nothin’.”
“We got homework diaries,” Sam told him, miserably. “Dad’s gotta sign it. If he don’t, the school phones him up…”
“Let me see this Homework Diary.” Mr Arnold wrapped his mouth scornfully around the words and held out a hand. Sam rummaged in his bag for it. The air smelled of freshly turned earth and river water and woodsmoke. Sam wished he could stay here on this allotment forever. He closed his eyes and let himself lose himself in the feeling of the summer sun on his face for a moment.
When he looked around Mr Arnold was smiling mischievously, a chewed up old biro in his hand and a blue smear of ink near his mouth. He handed the diary back to Sam.
“I’ve had a quick look. No need for your dad to trouble himself with that now, especially not on a skittles night. Now you need to help me cut back the gooseberry bushes before they take over the whole damned allotment.”