Light In The Hallway by Amanda Prowse: ‘Are you excited?’ Nick asked, as the car pulled in behind a queue of others, waiting for the smiling, fresh-faced student in the green luminescent T-shirt and holding a clipboard to direct them to the right place.
‘Nervous.’ His leg bounced up and down.
‘No need, Olly. Everyone here feels exactly the same.’
‘I guess so.
‘I’d be excited.’ Nick spoke the truth, able only to imagine what it might have meant to him to be in his son’s position, starting a degree at university and walking into a world where opportunity and chance would be at his feet. He thought briefly of the fancy Jaguar on Mackie’s forecourt and wished for his son the kind of career, the kind of life, that might make owning a car like that possible.
It could have been his imagination or his oversensitivity in light of recent events, but everywhere Nick looked he saw students with their mums – often their dads too, but it was the mothers who caught his attention. Some were quietly holding bags to carry up the stairs with a mournful look; others organised and doled out boxes, lifted from the boot of their car. He was overly aware of their presence and again felt the absence of his wife keenly.
Oliver’s room in the low-rise block was smaller than Nick had imagined, with barely enough space to walk between the bed and the desk, but that aside it was clean and warm.
‘At least you’ll be able to turn off your lamp, open the window and water your cactus thingy without having to leave the bed.’ He smiled at his son.
Oliver shook his head, still apparently not in the mood for his dad’s humour or commentary.
They both turned towards the long-haired girl in the oversized black glasses and baggy plaid shirt who stood in the doorway a little awkwardly.
‘Hello, neighbour. I’m next door.’ She pointed towards her left.
Nick said nothing, as nerves meant the only phrases that floated into his mind were Flippin’ ’eck! These rooms are small, aren’t they? and When I was a lad I’m sure it would have been lads in one building and lasses in another! but having had both these phrases and all attempts at humour banned by his son, he stayed schtum.
‘Hi.’ Oliver raised his hand in a manner Nick was sure was meant to be cool, but was in his opinion a little surly. He smiled broadly at the girl, as if his friendliness might make up for his son’s rather aloof manner.
‘I’m Tasha.’ She swallowed, touching her finger to her chest in a kooky way. ‘And I guess I’ll see you later!’ Her eyes, he noted, lingered for a second on his boy and he realised how out of the loop he was on what was considered attractive by youngsters nowadays. Maybe Oliver with his standoffish demeanour and the slightly greasy lick to his sticky-up fringe was what smart girls like Tasha were interested in. That and a whole bunch of fancy fairy lights, which were apparently ‘a thing’.
‘What?’ Oliver asked. Nick was unaware he’d been staring at his son.
‘She’s just a friend.’ Oliver whined.
‘Is that the first time you’ve met her?’
‘Oh, well, good that you’re planning a friendship; she seems nice.’ He smiled.
Oliver ignored his comment and bit a small hole in the plastic wrapping of the duvet. He shook the quilt out vigorously over his bed and stood back. Both men stared at the narrow strip of duvet that sat in the middle of the double bed.
‘We got a single.’
‘I figured as much, son. Put the cover on it and no one will notice.’
‘I’m going to notice; it’ll be freezing!’ the boy tutted.
‘Olly, this is a centrally heated room the size of a shoebox and it’s a rather warm September, plus you have thick pyjamas and socks. Order another one online or whatever; it’ll turn up in no time.’
‘We are rubbish at this, Dad.’
He watched the boy struggle to remove the duvet cover from the packaging, and two pillowcases fell on the floor.
‘Anyway, you can go now. There’s no need to hang around, you’ve got a long drive back and I’m good,’ Oliver said brightly. It felt a lot like a dismissal.
Nick pulled his son into an awkward hug, ‘Remember, if you’re not happy with anything or you feel homesick or you just want to chat, call any time, or jump on a coach or I’ll come and get you. You just need to say the word.’
‘I’m fine, Dad.’
‘I know you’re fine now, but I’m just saying that if at any point you’re not fine, then that’s okay, and you’re welcome home any time. You and me against the world, the Bairstow Boys! Just call.’
‘Are . . . Are you going to be okay?’
He wouldn’t forget the way Oliver looked at him with the pinched brows of someone who was worrying in reciprocation. Nick laughed out loud.
‘Oh yes, don’t you worry about me. I can’t wait to have the remote control all to myself and to sit in peace without that boom-boom music that judders through the floorboards. I’ll be right as rain. Plus, I’ve got Treacle.’
‘Bye then, Dad.’
Nick hugged him once more, tighter this time, letting his hand press the boy’s narrow back into his chest and hoping that he got the message where words failed him. You’re going to be fine, Olly. I love you. I’m proud of you . . . We both are. He walked away briskly, out of the room and down the stairs without looking back, cursing the thickening of emotion in his throat.