By Rik Haslam.
We’re running late for school because the footpath is covered in worms. There are dozens of them. I’ve no idea why they’ve suddenly appeared this morning, but I do know that after I drop Ben off I’ve got a nine-thirty with Moscow.
Ben’s insisting we pick all the worms up one by one and move them onto the grass. I can’t believe he’s even touching them. He hates anything squiggly. I’m pretending not to notice how he squirms, and squeezes shut his eyes whenever there’s a worm dangling from the tips of his fingers.
He’s normally such a softy. It’s not a pleasant feeling seeing him shrink from the other boys in the playground, but that’s what usually happens when he walks through those school gates. So I’m not sure whether he’s being brave and gentle, moving the tiny creatures to safety, or whether he’s just delaying the trauma of school. I don’t think I can face more tears.
“C’mon Ben,” I say, “We can’t move all of the worms. It’ll take forever.”
“They’ll get squished,” he says, sulking and looking at me as if he’s accusing me of wanting to trample up and down on them.
“No they won’t. Nobody will stand on them,” I lie. I’ve got the emerging market report for Sergei on a USB stick in my briefcase. Jill’s switched our service provider, trying to save a fiver a month or something. We’ve not had wireless for three weeks now. It’ll take at least ten minutes to copy the report onto my work PC and upload it to our corporate file transfer system. I can’t be late again. Sergei’s already pissed after I recommended going short on petro-chems. And he wanted to do the conference call at seven. I could almost see his sneer down the telephone when I said it was my week for the school-run.
“Somebody will stamp on them,” Ben insists, “And all the worms will die.”
I grab his hand and adjust the laptop strap on my shoulder. His arm locks. I hate tugging him along like this. I can’t bear to stop him doing what he wants. “Worms don’t die,” I say, “They split into two. So if somebody stands on them, it’ll just mean more worms.”
There’s a pause while he decides whether to believe me.
I’m never going to make the office in time. It’s been more than ten minutes since the last mum passed me, almost running, two kids in toe and a mobile stuck to her ear.
“Honest,” I say, “And you know what? There needs to be more worms so all the birds don’t go hungry.”
Ben loves birds. He calls pigeons, pigoons, and magpies, madpies.
I feel the resistance fade from his arm. We’re almost out of the park now. His little feet are working overtime to keep up with me. He’s moving uncomfortably like a toy car with a missing wheel. His neck is twisted so he can still see the worms as I drag him to school.
At the school gates I ruffle his hair and tell him to have a good day.
“Why do I have to go school?” he says.
I kneel down and give him a quick kiss. “We all have to do things we don’t like,” I say.
“Like picking up the worms.”
“That’s right,” I say, “Like picking up the worms.”
He looks happier now, as if something’s suddenly made sense. I stand up and pat his back, telling him to run along to his classroom. He’s only a few steps away when he turns back and catches me checking my watch.
“Dad,” he says.
“Do worms really split into two?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rik Haslam is 39 and a short story and fiction writer. He runs Anything But Hackneyed—a London based writer-reading event featuring a mix of well-known published novelists and new talent. He is currently completing the final year of an MA in creative writing and working on the final draft of his first novel. During the day he is a creative director for an ad agency, writing for the man.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 2nd, 2007.