Sofia is being sensible again: “It was probably the postman or somebody wanting to read the meter,” she says.
“You’ve changed your tune,” I reply. “You didn’t think it was the postman when you were wetting yourself in mum and dad’s room.”
“Shut up! I wasn’t wetting myself!”
We’re back in my room now and I’m holding the pile of money in my hands again. Neither of us can stop staring at it.
“I reckon it was somebody looking for this,” I say.
Sofia’s face drops. “Don’t be silly,” she says. “How would they know where you live?”
“I don’t know… Maybe they’ve been following me.”
“Don’t be silly!”
“I’m not being silly. It’s a lot of money. I mean a lot of money. Somebody must have missed it. Maybe they went back to the park to spy. Maybe they’ve been watching everybody who walks by.”
Sofia frowns and looks troubled. For a few moments she is deep in thought. Once again I’m reminded that she’s only little. “I’m scared,” she finally whispers. “We’ve got to tell mum and dad.”
Now I feel my heart racing. “No!” I say. “Not yet…” Although I’m not really sure why, I want to keep hold of the money. I can’t really spend it, can I? Somebody would notice. Wouldn’t they? But still I don’t want to give it back just yet.
“Well I’m going to tell,” says Sofia.
I look at Sofia and get all bossy: “You’re not going to tell,” I say. “Because if you do I’ll say it was you who told me to keep it.”
“I will – I’ll tell them that you said we should hide the money.”
Sofia looks appalled and begins to cry. “You’re horrible,” she sobs.
I put my arm around her. “No I’m not,” I say gently, “I was just kidding.”
But I wasn’t kidding. Sometimes I can be really horrible to Sofia. I don’t know why I do it and I always feel really guilty afterwards. I try to make amends:
“Look,” I say. “Come down the shops with me and I’ll buy you a comic.”
Sofia stops crying almost immediately and looks up at me suspiciously. “What sort of comic?’ she asks, her tears drying a little.
“Anything you like…”
We walk to the local shop. It’s a five-minute walk. It’s run by a young Turkish man called Ali. It’s one of those shops that sells almost anything you can think of. Oranges, light bulbs, chilli powder, wine, envelopes, breakfast cereal, bread, umbrellas. It’s only a small shop but it’s got everything in it. Ali knows us quite well. We’ve been coming here since we were little babies. First of all with mum. But now we’re allowed to go on our own. Mum’s always sending me out to get milk or tea or firelighters.
“What’s up my little friends?” Ali smiles, sitting on a chair behind a big counter at the front of the shop and watching a football match on a really small fuzzy TV. The counter is covered with every type of crisp, chocolate and sweet you can imagine. On a shelf below the crisps is a selection of comics. Sofia pores over them, looking for the one with the best free gift.
“Hiya Ali,” I say. He’s a very nice man is Ali. Sometimes he gives us free lollipops.
While Sofia chooses her comic I help myself to some sweets. I get a Crunchie, three packets of crisps (Cheese and onion, ready salted, beef and mustard) and some wine gums. I put them on the counter. Sofia taps me on the arm and hands me her choice: a brightly coloured Jacqueline Wilson comic stuffed full of coloured pencils and sweets.
Ali taps something into the till and says: “That’ll be seven pounds-thirty-two my little friends.”
I reach into my pocked and hand him a £50 note.
And with that time seems to stand still for a brief moment and then all at once several things happen.
It’s almost as if Ali is waking from a long sleep as he takes the note and suddenly realises what I have just given him. He looks over at me and a worried sort of frown spreads over his face. As this is happening Sofia is also realising what I have just done. She immediately starts to say something but I squeeze her hand really, really hard. She hisses: ‘Ouch!’ and Ali stops looking at me and looks at her instead.
“Are you OK Sofia?” he asks.
She says: ‘Erm… Yes… Thank-you.”
Ali turns back to look at me again. “Stephen,” he says. “This is a great deal of money… Are you sure…”
“It’s his birthday,” Sofia interrupts.
“…Oh…Really… It’s your birthday?” Ali smiles a little uncertainly. “Happy birthday Steven.”
“Thanks,” say I, false-smiling.
“And how old are you?”
How old am I? For a few micro-moments my mind starts racing like a grand prix car. I try to work out what to say but I’m at a loss. If I tell Ali I’m eleven he might remember that I only turned eleven last July and get suspicious. If I tell him I’m twelve he might also remember that I only turned eleven last July and wonder why my birthday came around so quickly. I don’t know what to say.
There is an uncomfortable silence and then Sofia says: “He’s twelve.”
Ali holds the £50 note up to the light and examines it closely. “It’s not that I don’t trust you,’ he says to himself more than me, “but it’s quite unusual to get one of these in here. Especially from someone so young.”
He opens the till and puts the note inside. Then he takes out some other notes and some coins and hands them to me. “Birthday money is it?” he says.
“What?” I splutter.
“I said: birthday money. It’s a present from someone, right?”
“That’s right,” says Sofia. ‘His granddad gave it to him.”
“Lucky you,’ says Ali.
I stare over at Sofia in the way that dad stares at me in public if I do something wrong. We both know that granddad is dead.