'The Greatest of These' by Joanna Cannon

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Here is the seventh and final instalment of Joanna Cannon's short story, The Greatest of These. It has been serialised over numerous literary blogs throughout the week, if you want to start from the beginning, you can find details of where to find the other chapters at the bottom of the page. Cannon's debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep will be released on 28th January.

PART SEVEN

‘Left a bit,’ said Mr Forbes from the bottom of the ladder. ‘No, not that much left. More to the right. No my right.’ Mr Dhillon wobbled at the top of the ladder and waved the sweeping brush about. Tilly and I watched from a safe distance, which I decided was far away enough not to be covered in snow, but near enough not to miss any of the action, although Thin Brian’s idea of a safe distance seemed to be the other side of the street, behind Mrs Forbes’ dustbins. ‘No, more left,’ shouted Mr Forbes. ‘Much more left.’ Mr Dhillon reached as far to the left as he could. In fact, he reached so far, the ladder began to tremble and Eric Lamb had to hold onto it with all his weight, and everyone did a very big Ooohhhhh!. I really thought he was going to fall, and I held Tilly’s hand, just in case she was scared. But Mr Dhillon managed to save himself by snatching at the roof tiles and leaning into the snow, and I heard Mrs Roper begin to clap because Nicholas Parsons had reappeared inside her living room.

When Mr Dhillon climbed down the ladder, his lips had turned an interesting shade of blue and his turban had begun to shiver. ‘Here.’ Mrs Roper appeared at her front door. ‘You look frozen to death. Take this.’ She handed him the blanket, and from behind Mrs Forbes’ dustbins, I heard Thin Brian say Bloody Nora. When Mr Dhillon had been given a hot chocolate and lots of back slapping, Eric Lamb said it was about time we all went to Rowan Tree Croft and helped Mr Dhillon get his car out. Everyone agreed, even Thin Brian, who had extracted himself from behind the dustbins and had shaken Mr Dhillon’s hand, although the blanket got in the way and made everything a bit awkward. We walked in a line, together with the butterfly, along an alleyway Mr Dhillon’s spade had cut into the snow. Even my father joined us. He had a shopping basket on wheels and a list of provisions my mother had written for him. I know this, because I checked the list, just to make sure none of the provisions were worryingly missed out. Everyone kept their eyes open for the third thing, looking over garden walls and down alleyways, and wondering when it might appear. ‘What do you think it will be?’ Tilly heaved herself up to look over a fence. ‘I don’t know.’ I helped her back down. ‘Maybe something heart-shaped.’ ‘Or a coin,’ said Tilly. ‘It could be a fish,’ said Thin Brian. We all stared at him. ‘Jesus fed people fish, didn’t he?’ He pushed his hands into his pockets. ‘You never know.’ ‘I do hope we find it on the way,’ said Tilly. ‘The third thing.’ ‘Love,’ said Mrs Roper. ‘Charity,’ shouted Mr Forbes, from the front of the line. Mrs Roper smiled and shook her head.

As it happened, we didn’t find anything on the way there, but on the plus side, it didn’t take very long at all to get Mr Dhillon’s car out, because there were so many of us. Everyone only had to push a little bit and he was on his way. The engine skipped and spluttered at first, but then it gave a big cough and sprang to life, and Mr Dhillon waved from the window as he drove off. ‘Where did he say he lived again?’ said Eric Lamb. ‘I don’t think he did,’ said Mrs Roper, ‘and I can’t say as I’ve seen him before, now you come to mention it.’ ‘Strange,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘I thought I knew everyone around here.’

Tilly and I dusted the snow from our coats and started to walk back to The Avenue. My father made a big list of what everyone needed from the shop and Mr Forbes decided to help him carry it all back, because he said a bit of exercise might actually do his gyp some good after all. Only Mrs Roper hurried on ahead, because she didn’t want to miss any more Sale of the Century. ‘Why are people so nice to each other when it snows? said Tilly. ‘I’m not sure.’ I did Tilly’s top button up, because she was always catching things. ‘Perhaps because it feels like someone’s wiped the blackboard and we can all start again.’ ‘Perhaps,’ said Tilly. ‘Or perhaps it just makes it easier for us all to see everything.’ ‘Like the butterfly and the necklace.’ ‘Exactly,’ she said. ‘Although I think the butterfly has disappeared. Perhaps it was too cold for it after all.’ She was right. The butterfly had gone. ‘What a shame we didn’t find the third thing,’ I said. We turned the corner into The Avenue and Tilly stopped. She picked up one of Mrs Forbes’ doilies, which someone had left on top of a snow drift. ‘Actually …’ she said. I looked up. You could see Mrs Roper’s television, lighting up her front window with blues and greys and whites. It reflected all our footprints, along the tunnel we had dug, and at the far end of it, there was a packet of salt, propped up in the snow. Even Thin Brian’s sweeping brush was still there, leaning against the garden wall. As I listened, I’m sure I could hear Mr Dhillon’s car, disappearing into the distance. ‘The third thing?’ I said. ‘I think …’ Tilly looked up at me. ‘I think …’ ‘I think you might be right,’ I said. I smiled at her. ‘But don’t go getting any big ideas about yourself, Tilly Albert.’ ‘I won’t, Gracie,’ she said, and she smiled back. We carried on walking. It didn’t feel so cold any more. The snow was soft under my boots and I could hear the slow, steady drip of a thaw somewhere beyond the rooftops. ‘I expect we’ll have to go to school tomorrow,’ said Tilly. ‘I expect we will,’ I said. The snow began to disappear. It was leaving as quickly as it had arrived, and as it did, all the things it had hidden began to re-emerge. The old tyre, the blue plastic chair, even the drainpipe. And I knew that when I woke up the next morning, everything would be back to the way it had always been.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon (Borough Press, £12.99) will be released in hardback on 28 January. Reserve your copy here

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