Nico’s Wish

12 minute read.

The box under the tree was bigger than Nico. Bigger, too, than any of the presents that were waiting for his brother and sister.

His mum had told them it would be their last Christmas in the flat. His last Christmas sharing a room with Charlie, Nico on the bottom bunk, all their stuff all over the floor, all over everything.

Nico knew he was meant to be excited about moving, but the flat in Camberwell was all he’d ever known, and he liked the mess and the noise, all of them falling over each other. And Craig from two doors down who he was allowed to play with in the stairwell or the other kids his age who’d muck about on the swings and the slides, watched by his mum from the balcony.

He liked the way the morning sun crept down the wall of his bedroom, inching across his best drawings, the ones his mum had blu-tacked there. And how in the summer, the kitchen was filled with an orange glow and the smell of spiced chicken and the clamour of voices, his uncles and aunties, his cousins, all crammed into one small room, his home.

His sister Michelle was going to get her own bathroom. Nobody else was allowed to use it, she said. Nico couldn’t care less. In the flat there was a toilet in the bathroom, and another one by the front door. He hardly ever had to wait but once, when he did, he’d gone outside and peed down the rubbish chute when nobody was looking and felt like he could do it again, if ever he needed to.  

Charlie and Michelle had both been to the new house and Nico had pretended not to be bothered but he was, and he couldn’t remember now why he hadn’t gone too.

Charlie didn’t say much. Mumbled something about how the house wasn’t finished yet. It hadn’t even got stairs and they’d had to climb to the bedrooms up a ladder. Michelle had gone on about her bathroom and how she was going to have lightbulbs all around the mirror. And how he and Charlie were not allowed to use the loo. NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, she’d said, in capitals. She’d shown him a picture of the house on her phone. The front garden a sea of mud, a half-built house off to one side that she said was a garage, somewhere for all their stuff, a car.

Nico’s present had been there for a week. They all had. One for them each of them and then, as the last days before Christmas counted down, a small pile for his mum. Nico had got her a frame for her favourite picture of his. It was of him and her surrounded by lions and tigers and elephants. He’d spent ages on it, every felt tip in the box, and even he thought it looked good, the eyes just right.

It took Nico a few days to get over the size of his present. He didn’t say anything to Charlie or Michelle. He didn’t need to. It sat there like a spaceship that had landed unannounced. Like it had a personality, someone new sitting there, waiting, winking. ‘Who am I?’ it whispered when Nico entered the room.

At night, when Charlie had stopped wriggling, Nico closed his eyes and tried to imagine what was inside. But all the things he could think of were impossible. A PlayStation. A scooter. A radio-controlled car.

He wished so hard it that it might be one of those things, he felt sure he could change the contents of the box. Mad Uncle Tony had given him a huge present, for his birthday one year, and inside, packed in a vast nest of straw, there’d been twenty mangoes. Each one wrapped in tissue paper. Nico hadn’t been sure if it was a joke. He’d tried to hide his disappointment, his heart a deflating balloon. The box was big enough for Nico to get in and later, when his cousins had gone home, he’d got in it and pretended to sleep while his mum did Facebook or whatever she did on her phone. He wanted to be wrapped up, in bright shiny wrapping, and when his mum opened it, her face would be like sunshine and she’d say it was the best present she’d ever had.


Nico could tell things were changing.

He closed his eyes and squeezed his fists and dreamt of a stunt scooter and a skateboard and, on Christmas day, unwrapped both from the one huge box. In the afternoon, when everyone was watching a film, he’d asked his mum if he could go to his room to do a drawing. He lay down on his mattress and started to cry. He wasn’t sure if it was the proper turkey that he’d had seconds and thirds of, or the scooter, or the fact that his mum had said that this would be their last Christmas in the flat, a real smile, her eyes sparkling. He was full of food, and it was hot in the flat and he was sure he was happy, but he put his face in the pillow and sobbed. 

It was like magic. Like he’d conjured something that he’d always wanted and now he was scared. This power he never knew he had.

He remembered how they used to be allowed one spoonful of strawberry jam on their toast at breakfast. And how he and Charlie and Michelle had tested his mum, to see how much they could get away with. And how she had told them the importance of eking it out. Of making it last.

He promised himself he would do the same with his magic. That he’d use it sparingly. Occasionally. That he knew it was a limited thing. That one day it would run out and he wanted it to last as long as it could.

He was careful with his wishes, unsure if and when they might come true. He longed for everything to slow down, all the change around him, the new house, a new school next year, the feeling that he was getting older, no longer a little kid.

He tried not to wish too hard, for fear that he might freeze, that he might make everything stop. But he did dream of things staying exactly as they were. The flat, the four of them bumping along just fine, everything easy, uncomplicated.


It was something to do with the book his mum had written. She’d told stories to each of them when they were little, and by the time it was Nico’s turn, she started to write them down, the characters drawn in thick black pen with a watercolour wash. Nico hadn’t thought anything of it and then, after he’d grown out of them, they started to appear, in boxes in the hallway, properly printed. He remembered them – about a talking zebra that went on adventures looking for its mum and dad – from when he was a baby, but he was too old for them now and the boxes got in the way when they were all getting ready to go out.

He thought they were dumb. Just books for little kids. There were just two things he liked about them – on page 3 where it said ‘For Nico, Charlie and Michelle, with love’, and the picture on the back where his mum was smiling at something next to the camera. He wondered if it was him, if he was doing something out of shot that was making her smile like that. He doubted it was the others.

She’d been a schoolteacher at the secondary school that Charlie and Michelle went to. Nico knew that they found it difficult that their mum worked there, that to all the other kids she was Miss Welty. Charlie said it was embarrassing when he ran past her in the corridor or when someone saw them together outside school, and they were embarrassed because that’s not their name, Welty. They were Charlie and Michelle Greene. Nico Greene too.

But despite that, Nico had been looking forward to going to school with her and now that wasn’t going to happen, because of the book.

Claudine Welty, it said, on the front cover and on the spine. It was like she was doing it deliberately, trying to distance herself from them, Nico thought. He’d found her passport, unused for years, in a bottom drawer in her bedroom when she was out and that said Claudine Mary Greene, in black and white. He wanted to confront her but she never wanted to talk about it, his dad, why she’d changed her name.

Miss Welty had finished at the big school at the end of the summer term. Charlie said there had been a cake in the shape of a zebra and that too felt like something that Nico should have been involved with. He imagined it as the size of a real zebra, with black and white icing, and all the kids getting a piece, everyone at the school.

He resented the books. The boxes piled beneath where they hung their coats. Having to squeeze past, to move, to move to another school. One where his mum wouldn’t be. The skateboard and the scooter were a dream come true but his bigger wish, the one he kept buried deep inside, was that everything would stay exactly as it was. And if that meant just mangoes for Christmas, Nico didn’t care.


Nico had never met his dad and there were no photographs of him in the house. Charlie claimed to remember him, but he’d been two when he left. And Michelle had no interest at all. She was fourteen and had her own phone and in the new house Nico knew she’d be in her bathroom all the time. A room he wasn’t allowed in UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

He asked Charlie to describe how he looked and Nico had tried to draw him, like a detective might on a TV show, but Charlie had seemed bored and said the picture was nothing like him. Nico doubted Charlie had any memories and he knew not to ask his mum. That she always said he could talk to her about anything. Anything except him.

The books meant that his mum was out a lot, in the evenings especially. And it was up to Michelle to look after him and Charlie, to cook them food, to make sure they went to bed before nine-thirty if it was a school night.

The fridge was always full now. Deliveries from the supermarket that would arrive in crates and they’d all have to unpack while the driver waited on the walkway in the cold.

The flat felt empty without her. The sound of her singing while she cooked. All three of them sat around the kitchen table, doing their homework, Nico bent over a sheet of paper, a felt tip bringing something to life.

The evenings seemed to stretch on when she was away. Michelle in her room, on her phone. Charlie on the Gameboy he’d been given for Christmas. Nico working on a drawing, or looking through his mum’s wardrobes, searching for something that might tell him a bit more about who he was, where he’d come from.

There was a concertina folder made of thick paper that looked like an old squeeze box. In it were hundreds of sheets of paper divided by the letters of the alphabet, and Nico had gone through them several times. He was careful to pull out a fistful of papers and replace them in the right section. Bills, things to do with the flat, banking. It was old, dated from years ago, before he’d even been born, and he wasn’t sure why his mum kept any of it.

It was here that he found several pieces of paper addressed to Gabriel Greene and the first time he felt his face fill with blood and his ears went hot and he thought he might be sick. Over the coming weeks, his mum away, he went through everything and found this name again and again. Gabriel Greene. He was sure it must be his father.


The new house was better than he’d imagined. He’d been there before they moved in and got to pick the colour for the walls of his room. He went for a sky blue and his mum seemed happy and helped him chose curtains that matched.

It was good to have his own room too. A double bed, all to himself, and he didn’t have to put up with Charlie wriggling around all the time, shouting out in his sleep.

“A proper home,” his mum said, and she got Mad Uncle Tony to take a picture of the four of them on the doorstep.

Nico asked to have a look on his uncle’s phone and when he zoomed in he saw that his mum had streaks of make-up on her cheeks. But she was smiling and Nico knew that this was a big deal, a new house, a bedroom each, somewhere with space to spread out.

“This is good, isn’t it?” Nico’s mum said, and it was like she was asking herself the question, like a thought said out loud.

It was all good, Nico had to admit. And then his father started texting, and everything changed again.


Nico knew about the texts. The way his mum held her body as she sat in their new sofa, Nico cuddled up watching the big TV. He knew too not to ask. That any reference to his father would be greeted with a shake of her head that would make his heart feel like she’d blown frost across it.

He’d settled into his new school, and Charlie and Michelle seemed happy too. But they all knew that their father had been in touch, and that it was a subject not to be mentioned.

Nico had dozens of questions and was so desperate for answers he thought he might be sick. All of these thoughts somehow fighting in his gut for attention, eager to get out into the world.

His mum was with her agent in town and Nico tapped on Michelle’s door.

She let him come him in and he sat on her bed and played a game on her phone while she did something with her hair in the bathroom.

“You know dad’s been texting mum, don’t you?” Nico said.

“Nosy little fella, aren’t you?”

“That’s not fair Micha! I don’t know what’s going on. Why’s he texting mum?”

“Why do you think?” she said, but not like it was a real question, one that required an answer.

“Dunno,” said Nico, thumbing the phone. “It’s not fair that I don’t know him. That he’s talking to mum not me.”

Michelle came into the bedroom and sat down with him.

“Baby bruv. I’m sorry. I don’t really know him either. I do know he left us when you were still in mum’s tummy. I was six, maybe seven. It’s funny but I can hardly even picture him. He was there and then he was gone and there was nothing left. Not a single reminder.”

“I’ve seen his name,” said Nico, like he’d made some huge discovery.

“Have you now?” said his sister, knowingly.

Nico felt his ears go hot, like he’d said too much.

“Baby bruv. He was never here for you. Any of us. Never left a penny for mum. She had to do everything for us, you know.”

“I know.”

“Uncle Tony hasn’t got a good word to say about him.”

“Why not?”

“Coz he was never there. He left mum. And you and me and Charlie. Cooped up in that little flat. Had to do it all herself.”

“So why’s he texting mum?”

“Little bruv. C’mon. Have a think.”

Nico put the phone down and looked around the bedroom for clues.

“The books Nico, the books.”

He felt overwhelmed with tiredness. Like a heavy blanket had been lifted on to him. Or like in French classes at school, when some other kid was speaking and Nico couldn’t understand a word.

In the bathroom the lights around the mirror were illuminated.

“Can I go in there?”

Michelle nodded and he jumped down from the bed.

He sat on the stool in front of counter and stared into the mirror. The lights made his face look different and he pulled some expressions and watched the boy in the glass, his eyes, his lips, his teeth.

His sister knelt on the carpet behind him and rested her chin on his shoulder. Nico liked the way the lights reflected in her eyes.

“You okay, little man? You gonna be okay?”

Nico nodded and the girl in the mirror smiled, her braces glittering under the lights.


Nico was already in bed when he heard the doorbell. He was working on a cartoon character he’d invented, a fox who was always trying to trick the other animals into leaving the door of the chicken run open. His mum allowed him to draw for half an hour before she came up and switched his light off.

He knew it would be his dad although he wasn’t sure how. They never had visitors late at night, and there was something about how it rang, over and over, that made Nico confident it was him.

He’d already been to the bathroom and brushed his teeth, but he slipped out of bed and tiptoed along the landing.

Charlie was sat at the top of the stairs in his dressing gown and held his finger to his lips. Nico nodded, his eyes wide and unblinking, and sat down next to him in the dark.

A man’s silhouette in the mottled glass shifted as he bent to press the bell again.

From the lounge they could hear their mother’s voice, and echoed in the doorbell speaker outside, distorted. She sounded calm but Nico and Charlie couldn’t hear what she said.

“C’mon Claud. Just five minutes.”

An accent. Foreign, Nico thought.

A mumble from the room downstairs, amplified in the speaker but hard to make out through the door.

The figure behind the glass was bobbing around, like he was dancing on his toes.

“Just once Claud. I promise. Just once. I know you got it.”

Michelle appeared and the boys made space for her next to them on the top stair.

“She knew this would happen,” she whispered.

Nico looked at his brother, frowning. He felt left out, like he’d missed classes, and now the others were way ahead, and he doubted he could ever catch up.

“A one-off. Claud, c’mon,” said the stranger’s voice from behind the door.

“What a shit,” whispered Michelle.

Nico’s eyes went wider still, and he searched his brother’s face again.

Charlie turned to his sister.

“Gimme your phone.”

The bell sounded again. And then hammering on the door.

“I need it, Claud. And then I’ll be gone, I promise.”

Michelle unlocked her phone and passed it to Charlie in silence.

More drumming on the door.

“Fuckin’ hell Claud. It’s a one off. I know you’ve got plenty. C’mon.”

Nico put his fingers in his ears. He couldn’t bear it. The banging and the shouting. His mum’s quiet voice from below, and in the speaker on the other side of the door. There was so much he didn’t know, didn’t want to know, and now Charlie was on the phone and he pushed his fingers so hard into his ears it sounded like he was underwater.

Michelle put her arm around him and he wormed his way into the crook of her armpit but kept his ears and eyes shut against the pounding and the silhouette and his father’s voice all strange and unfamiliar. He knew he had to be strong and that he would be safe here, with his sister and his brother, and that as soon as his father was gone, his mother would hold him and that everything, maybe, would be normal again.

He curled into his sister and he was aware of the hammering on the door, and the bell, and a voice he didn’t recognise getting louder, and then blue lights flashing, and a whistling sound in his ears like the kettle at Mad Uncle Tony’s house.

And then later, not much later, all of them in his mum’s bed together. Him on one side, Charlie on the other, and Michelle sat cross legged facing them.

It was very late. Well past Nico’s bedtime. Outside all was quiet. A hoot from an owl in the back garden. Nico could feel sleep coming and he hoped his mum would let him stay here, with her, just this one time.

It was coming, like a warm bath, and he struggled to think clearly. He tried to make his wish into words in his head. A simple phrase, a single sentence. He closed his eyes and focused only on his wish, and he knew then, in that delicious moment before sleep, he’d wake in the morning and it would all come true.

About David Micklem

David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer. He’s recently been published by The London Magazine, Litro, STORGY Magazine, Scratch Books, the Cardiff Review, Lunate, Bandit and Tiger Shark. He’s been shortlisted for the 2023 and 2021 Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prizes, the 2023 London Independent Short Story Prize, the 2022 Bristol Prize, and the 2020 Fish Short Story Prize. He lives in Brixton in south London.

David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer. He’s recently been published by The London Magazine, Litro, STORGY Magazine, Scratch Books, the Cardiff Review, Lunate, Bandit and Tiger Shark. He’s been shortlisted for the 2023 and 2021 Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prizes, the 2023 London Independent Short Story Prize, the 2022 Bristol Prize, and the 2020 Fish Short Story Prize. He lives in Brixton in south London.

Leave a Comment