When Barney arrived at Nick’s Mrs Fletcher was in the kitchen.
“Hello, Barney,” she said. “Will you stay for lunch?”
Barney hesitated. He really shouldn't stay more than an hour. He really did have to catch up with that geography course work.
Mrs Fletcher pushed her hair back and wiped her hands on her apron. Barney had never seen her look so harassed. Usually she was smartly dressed and nicely made up. But to-day she looked tired and grey.
“Only it’s just that I can’t get Nick to eat anything at the moment. I just thought if you were here…?” Mrs Fletcher looked straight at him. “Maybe just yoghurt or something? If you eat, he might join in.”
“Okay, Mrs Fletcher, of course, I will. Only I’ll have to ring Mum and ask if it’s all right.”
Barney heard the door along the corridor slam open.
“Barney, are you coming?" shouted Nick. "I’ve got something to show you.”
“You run along,” said Mrs Fletcher. She was smiling now. “I’ll square it with your mum.”
“Shut the door,” ordered Nick. “Come and look at this.” He swivelled round on his chair. His eyes were sparkling. There was another watercolour of the harbour on his desk. He had managed to get it out of the drawer himself!
“How…?” asked Barney.
“Easy!” said Nick. “Watch!”
Nick propelled the chair over to the drawer and wedged the arm of his chair underneath it. He pulled at the knob, tipped the chair away slightly and then placed his elbow in the drawer and slid the paper along. The paper tipped up just enough at the end that he could hold it between his finger and thumb. Resting it on his lap, he turned the chair back towards the desk and raised his hands slightly until the paper was just balancing on the table top, then inched it on more firmly with his elbow.
“But the water?” asked Barney.
Nick grinned. “I asked Mum for a drink of water. Out of a glass. I nearly choked, of course. She forgot all about it and left the glass here.”
Barney shook his head. What was he worrying about, when Nick had so much to put up with, but still managed to do what he wanted to?
“Come here. Come closer,” said Nick. “Take a really good look at this one.”
Barney moved over to the desk.“What am I looking for?” he asked.
“See there?” said Nick. “Right next to the boat with the yellow sails?”
“Yeah,” said Barney, still puzzled. “What about it?”
“This!” cried Nick.
Barney felt something cold and wet on his cheek.
“What the heck?” he cried. He turned to see Nick with a huge grin on his face and holding the paint brush clenched tightly in his hand. Barney grabbed the other paint brush which was lying on the desk. It was covered with green paint. He jabbed at Nick’s face with it. Nick laughed out loud. Then he managed to get the red paint brush between his teeth and started dipping it in the glass and using it to flick water at Barney. Barney really found it difficult to keep out of Nick’s way, as Nick could turn his wheel chair in any direction he wanted. Besides, Barney was tired from the swim and had gone weak from laughing. Nick threw back his head and spat the paint brush out on to the floor. He laughed and screeched at the same time. Barney was laughing so hard there were tears coming from his eyes. The two boys looked at each other. Then the laughing started all over again.
“Well, I’m glad you two boys are having a good time,” called Mrs Fletcher. “I’m just bringing your lunch along now.”
Nick pointed to the painting with his head. The laughter had gone from his eyes. Barney could see that he was sweating.
"Go on then," he hissed. He started tapping his fingers nervously on the arm of his wheelchair.
“Quick,” he whispered.
Barney hurried to put some clean kitchen paper over the picture.
"You look a mess,” mouthed Nick.
“You too,” replied Barney. Both boys started giggling again. Nick managed to get his voice under control.
“It’s all right, Mum,” he said. “Leave the tray outside. Barney’ll fetch it in a minute.”
“So what’s going on here then?” asked Mrs Fletcher, with just a touch of sharpness in her voice.
“We’re making a birthday present for you,” said Nick quickly. "And if you believe that, you'll believe anything," he added under his breath.
“Oh, I see,” said Mrs Fletcher. "Nothing like being well prepared."
"We've got to get it right, Mum, haven't we?"
Barney thought Mrs Fletcher sounded relieved. He guessed she was glad Nick was enjoying himself.
Then he caught sight of one of the green spots on Nick’s face and felt another giggle rising up.
“Well, just make sure you both eat your lunch.”
“We will,” said Barney, forcing himself to keep his face straight for a few seconds.
Barney waited until he heard Mrs Fletcher close the kitchen door again. Then he sneaked into the bathroom and cleaned his face. He found Nick’s flannel and took it into his room to wipe him.
“I don’t want any of that crap,” said Nick suddenly, looking scornfully at the banana custard.
“Man, you’ve got to eat,” said Barney. Nick could be so stubborn sometimes. “Why don’t you want to eat?”
"'Cause!” replied Nick, making his eyes go big and licking his lips. “‘Cause I’d rather have a steak!”
Barney tried to imagine Nick eating a steak. He would never be able to chew it. He remembered when they left junior school. Nick wasn’t in a wheelchair then. There had been a barbecue at the Fletchers’ home to celebrate the boys’ move up to secondary school. Nick had had to walk with a frame, but at least he could still walk. And he had eaten steak straight from the grill. Suddenly Barney didn’t feel like laughing anymore.
“You have them both. I’ll eat later,” said Nick. He spun his chair round so that he had his back to Barney.
“I just don’t like people watching me eat,” said Nick, his voice sounding husky. “Not even you, or Mum and Dad.”
Barney could tell Nick meant business. He was quite ravenous after the swim and the early start. It had been several hours since breakfast.
The boys didn’t speak while Barney ate. Mrs Fletcher came back half an hour later.
“Did you both enjoy that?” she asked looking meaningfully at Barney. Nick was staring straight at Barney. He seemed to be warning him.
“Oh, yes, Mrs Fletcher. It was lovely,” said Barney. “Look, we’ve finished it all.”
“Thank you, Barney,” said Mrs Fletcher. She smiled. Barney knew she wasn’t just thanking him for the compliment about her cooking and felt himself go red.
“I want to go down to the harbour,” Nick suddenly announced.
“Well, I’m sure it's possible. I’m sure Barney won’t mind wheeling you down there. It’s a nice afternoon. Will that be all right?” Mrs Fletcher looked at Barney.
“Of course, Mrs Fletcher.” That was good-bye to the geography homework. But of course he would take Nick down to the harbour. How could he refuse?