“Ablute! Ablute!” he cried cheerily as he skipped across the hall from his bedroom and into the bathroom. He had heard a submarine officer yell something similar in one of the war films he enjoyed watching on his little portable tv late at night. It was cold in the bathroom. He thought that strange because his mother usually turned the heating on first thing in the morning at this time of year. When his bare feet touched the chilly tiles, he wished he’d put on his socks in his bedroom.
He sat down, just in case, but needn’t have. After washing his hands thoroughly, he brushed his teeth – he counted forty-three vertical and twenty-seven horizontal movements. He was never quite sure which direction provided for better hygiene, so liked to vary his routine. Sometimes he would brush more vertically and other times he would concentrate on horizontal strokes.
When he was finished he positioned himself in front of the little mirror above the basin and, with some toothpaste, drew two bushy eyebrows, a drooping moustache and a fluffy Santa-like beard on top of his own reflected features. He giggled a little and uttered a cautiously quiet “Ho! Ho! Ho!” It would soon be Christmas again. He loved Christmas.
Once downstairs, he went straight into the kitchen and put two slices of bread into the toaster. He poured some milk into his own plastic tumbler. When the toast popped up, he rooted around in the top drawer for the blunt butter knife and spread some margarine on the warm, browned bread. Mother didn’t like him using the sharper kitchen utensils.
Carrying the milk and toast in both hands, he carefully kicked the door of the living room open and went in. He could see immediately that his mother was still in her armchair, one hand rested on an arm. As he moved forward, he saw a half-finished cup of tea on the small table beside her. She’s been there all night, he thought. With his breakfast set down on the low table in front of the sofa, he went and tapped his mother on one shoulder. “Lazybones,” he whispered. He didn’t want to wake her. Yet he really wanted her to wake up. There was no movement and nothing he felt he could do, so he sat on the sofa to have his breakfast.
He ate one slice of toast in nineteen carefully counted mouthfuls, and quickly determined to finish the other one off with the same number of bites. He had always hated even numbers and tried to avoid them whenever possible. If he could complete a task with the aid of a prime number, so much the better. In between mouthfuls, he sipped at the milk.
With the remote he switched on the television and turned the volume down low. He began channel hopping. One channel at a time, starting with one, he reached sixty-seven before he stopped. Nothing grabbed his attention, but he decided to stop on that particularly attractive number. A rather high prime number, he mused, he was also quite sure it was his mother’s age. It was some kind of shopping channel and so he was only half paying attention as he finished his breakfast.
He glanced around the room, his eyes tracing the unusually tranquil, familiar terrain until they rested on the other armchair in the room. That was his father’s chair and nobody had sat in it these last four years – nobody, that is, except strangers to the house who didn’t know whose chair it actually was.
His breakfast done, he was starting to get bored. He often soon got bored when left to his own devices, particularly first thing in the morning. It was also very cold in the room. Looking out the window he could see spots of rain falling on the glass and the wind blowing the high trees opposite. He knew it was winter outside.
He was more bored and not a little worried now. His mother never slept so long, especially when she fell asleep in the armchair. She had told him how uncomfortable it became after only a couple of hours. He stood up and approached her again. He touched her lightly on the forearm, then bent over and gently ruffled her once-blonde, now-greying hair. Nothing. Neither a motion nor a sound. Only stillness.
He really wanted her to wake up now. More than anything in the world, he wanted his mother awake. He didn’t know what to do. His eye caught the phone, on the unit by the door. Maybe he could call someone to help him, he thought. But who? His father was gone for good. His uncle lived a long way away, that much he knew. He remembered the recent journey with two changes of train in terrifyingly busy stations and the fact he had completed three colouring-in pictures and eleven Sudoku puzzles in the time it took them to get to his uncle’s place. The neighbours he knew and felt able to speak to would likely be working at that time on that day.
The police? He knew their number was 999, a nice round number in his opinion. He had often regretted not living in America after he found out that they used the beautiful prime number 911 to call for help. No good. He wouldn’t know what to say to the strangers on the other end of the line.
He sat back on the sofa, unsure and shivering softly inside and out. A tiny, single tear of aching frustration forced itself out the corner of one eye and trickled down the side of his nose, making it itch. More followed and his vision started to blur as he sat looking from his mother to the phone to the tv, all the time reciting every prime number he knew, as high as he could go.