We Must Be Learning


Photo Courtesy of Lauren Nagy

WARNING: This content includes vague references to addiction and aggression.


Phoebe Mulligan slumps in her chair at the kitchen table. She is alone; her father and stepmother have gone out for the morning. It’s been one year this weekend since her mother, a drunk, collapsed in a pub loo and didn’t wake up. 

The air is cold with the coming of winter, and rain sprays the paneled windows in the back of the kitchen. Phoebe is used to the near daily English rain, and today she is especially content to spend the entirety of her time inside. 

She flashes back to the events of yesterday. Yesterday, when she let herself walk home with Stuart Allen after he’d finished yet another detention. He had talked back to the teacher numerous times… yet despite the wrath he incurred afterward, laughed it off and didn’t seem to mind. It’s clear that sitting for detention does Stu no good, nor does it teach him anything. It’s hardly even a punishment – just an opportunity for him to gather his energy for his next round of antics.

Antics that, yesterday, included snatching a bag that held a very special photograph of Phoebe’s – the last one she has of her and her mother from nearly a decade ago, back when Phoebe was only seven and everything was still normal.

Stu had run with it all the way down to the river at the bottom of the school lawn, taking every antagonizing step closer to the water’s edge just because he knew it was torture for Phoebe to watch. He dangled the bag’s string back and forth in his dirty fingers, slowly extending his arm out over the water. 

Phoebe had warned him not to, but she was too late – for the minute she opened her mouth he’d opened his grasp and let the little picture fall, down into the dark water, never to be seen again. 

Tired of thinking about yesterday afternoon yet again, Phoebe runs a hand through her hair, her eyes falling to the breakfast, now cold, in front of her. 

PHOEBE: I still have a long way to go, don’t I, Mum?

She sips her tea, her bare legs shivering. She rises to grab a shawl when there is an unmistakable knock at the door.

Phoebe pauses, second-guessing herself. She watches the door for developments. 

The knock comes again, more urgent this time.

PHOEBE: Who the – in the rain? Who could…

She makes her way to the door, grabbing a butter knife from the open drawer just in case. Sheff has its fair share of criminals, though they aren’t particularly common in nice neighborhoods like hers…

She turns the latch, backing away quickly after, butter knife held straight out in front of her, poised to defend. 

The handle turns from the outside, creaking the door open to reveal-


Stuart Allen stands outside, soaked through to the skin and looking quite sheepish.

PHOEBE: Stu, get the devil away from my-

She gasps. Stu has two bulging black eyes, a few scrapes on his cheeks and down to his chin, and is hunched over in a way that suggests he hasn’t slept well.

Neither of them says anything for a moment. At last Stu snickers, shattering the awkward barrier.

STU: Why’re ye holdin’ a butter knife?

Phoebe hides it behind her back.

PHOEBE: No reason.

She says nothing more, her eyes only meeting his, full of questions she isn’t sure she wants the answers to.

Stu sighs.

STU: Look, I went to the pub, all right? Got in a scrap or two, I don’t really remember. By the end everyone was too dead knackered to go anywhere. And, eh-

He turns his head back for a moment, smirking as he gestures to the pouring rain.

STU: Bit of a drizzle on, y’know.

Phoebe, hands on her hips, lets out an exasperated breath.

PHOEBE: Too dead knackered?

STU: Couldn’t very well come ‘ome lookin’ like this, could I?

PHOEBE: Well, I’m sure your aunt would understand-

She would understand, wouldn’t she? Phoebe doesn’t know much about Stu’s family – not that she’d want to anyway – but she knows he lives with his aunt. She’s thought now and then about asking what happened to his mum – but decided against it every time.

Stu, in answer to Phoebe’s suggestion, shakes his head.

STU: You don’t know Minnie. Woulda gone home, but I didn’t feel like gettin’ slapped on me other end… ‘s the only part of me that isn’t injured…

She ignores his quip.

PHOEBE: Are you saying you slept there all night?

Stu’s dimples flash as he smiles.

STU: Well, until the owner shook us all awake at five in the ruddy mornin’…


STU: Yer sure do say tha’ a lot.

PHOEBE: Well, look at you!

STU: Me? Incredibly handsome, attractive, charming-

PHOEBE: Oh, shut up

She pulls him out of the rain, shutting the door quickly behind him. Stu stays quiet, still slightly stunned at her sudden movement. Phoebe hurries into the kitchen for a towel to put below him on the floor.

STU: Nice place yeh’ve got, Febes…

Phoebe rolls her eyes upon eyeing the damp circle on the floor where Stu’s clothes have dripped. She lays a large towel down, gesturing for him to stand over it.

STU: What am I, a dog?

PHOEBE: Sure smell like one. And you’re all wet.

STU: I don’t really hafta do anythin’ ye tell me, y’know. 

PHOEBE (through gritted teeth): Get. on. the. rug.

STU: Why should I listen to you?

PHOEBE: Because if you don’t I’ll kick you out, an’ leave you to catch your death out there. Or for your dear auntie to find you. Whichever comes first.

She folds her arms, watching Stu for any sudden movements. When he doesn’t move, she nods her head in affirmation. This is as well as he’s going to behave.

Phoebe thinks for a moment.

PHOEBE: You need a shirt.

Before he’s able to say anything else, she hurries upstairs, padding back down a moment later with one of Daddy’s white work shirts and a pair of plain black slacks. 

Stu eyes the clothing suspiciously.

PHOEBE: My dad’s.

It does feel strange handing something of her father’s to a boy she despises – a boy her father doesn’t even know.

STU: Who’s yer dad, bleedin’ Prime Minister?

PHOEBE (quickly refolding her arms): Well, I’m not about to let you sit around in wet clothes! Bathroom’s first door on the left upstairs. Go change and then come back down.

Stu takes the clothes willingly, but makes a face as he ascends the staircase.

STU: Pushy bird…

Phoebe sighs.

A few minutes later Stu comes back down. Daddy’s shirt is just a little loose, but still fits rather well. He’s cuffed the bottoms of the slacks, in true teddy style, since they’d been a little too long as well.

He’s forsaken all hopes of reviving his quiff, and has instead finger-combed his dripping hair into a messy mop on top of his head. 

He looks quite handsome, Phoebe can’t help thinking as she stands there. Handsome only in a scruffy sort of way.

Stu smirks.

STU: What’re ye starin’ at?

Phoebe shakes the thought out of her head.

PHOEBE: Nothing. Just checking out your eyes.

STU: Gorgeous, aren’t they?

If he wasn’t already hurt, she would hit him.

PHOEBE: I mean your black eyes, silly.

STU (looking slightly deflated): Oh. Yeah.

Phoebe pulls out a chair from the kitchen table, gesturing for Stu to sit. She withdraws a bag from one of the cabinets, setting it on the table in front of him. Giving him a hot water bottle to hold over one eye, she rubs peroxide on the cuts along his cheeks. Her hand quivers ever so slightly when she feels his breath from his nose.

She never would have believed two months ago that she’d ever be within speaking distance of Stu at her own will, let alone making contact with his face, treating his injuries – since when is she a nurse?

STU: Is it fatal? Ye look near spooked, Mully.

PHOEBE: You’re much scarier up close.

STU: Well, ta for braving the sight of me, Florence Nightingale.

Phoebe’s breath catches in her throat. Is this what he thinks she is? It’s not as though she’s falling in love with him, anyway. His Nightingale reference is nothing more than a joke in passing. Just pressing her buttons.

She collects herself and finds her breath again.

PHOEBE: Why did you go to the pub?

STU: Me feet walked, me hand opened the door, me arse sat down…

PHOEBE: No, I mean why want to go? You’re underage.

STU: You threw yer hissy fit over yer baggy or whatever an’ I –

He pauses, not sure how much more he wants to tell her.

STU: I wasn’t feelin’ great about it. Plus, as far as the barkeepers know, I’m the thirty-two-year-old cousin of the Queen.

Phoebe lets a chuckle escape. 

Stu meets her eyes.

STU: I know ye think I’m funny, even if ye try hidin’ it.

She looks back at him, unsure of what to say. It’s eating at her, it’s been eating at her since she let him in the house. Since yesterday. He has to know. 

Phoebe’s smile disappears. She grows serious.

PHOEBE: Stu, that was… the last picture I had of my mother and me. The only picture I had of my mother and me.

Stu is silent, struck with the information. He thinks for a moment about whether she could be lying, making up stories to coerce him into regret, but he can see the earnestness in her eyes. She isn’t kidding.

PHOEBE: That’s why I stormed off. I apologize if I appeared a little hurt when I lost the only thing I had left of Mum.

She doesn’t want to sound as hurt as she feels, but she keeps a firm tone. She doubts he’ll apologize, but at least saying the words aloud means she doesn’t have to bear their weight all alone anymore.

Stu removes the water bottle from his eye for a moment, holding her stare for longer than before. Her eyes search him, but he doesn’t say a thing.

Somehow, she knows that is his apology. He seldom looks so solemn, and at risk of spoiling his pride by excusing himself, he breathes words of regret through his brown eyes instead.

And just like that, an understanding is reached, communicated entirely without words.

Relief flows through Phoebe – relief that Stu can, indeed, comprehend the emotional complexities of her situation, can actually feel sympathy and regret, though he doesn’t state them out loud. It may not have sufficed for others, but it’s good enough for her.

For the next hour, Phoebe and Stu sit at the table, she pressing peroxide and bandages to his cuts and scrapes, he holding hot water bottles over his eyes. Eventually he gets comfortable enough to sit and tell her stories of his adventures at the pubs. She never asked to hear them, but she also never objected, so he’s taken it as a ticket to keep speaking.

Story after story, she allows herself to laugh, allows herself to enjoy the time with him, despite the unusual circumstances.

She cleans one cut near his chin, and her finger accidentally brushes his lip. His eyes snap down to meet hers, and she starts to redden before hastily moving on.

Soon, he is bandaged and cleaned, his eyes looking more purple now.

PHOEBE: You’re done, Allen.

STU (looking in the mirror): Patched me up well, you ‘ave… well, at least I think ye have, can’t hardly see me own face at this point.

PHOEBE (laughing): Shut it, it’s only a few bandages. And don’t you go peeling them off.

Stu stands properly before her, saluting responsibly.

STU: Yes, Florence Nightingale!

Phoebe rolls her eyes and gets up, zipping the medical bag up before turning around to realize he is right behind her. For a moment, neither knows quite what to say. 

The house is still silent; Daddy and Vivian are still out and she has no idea when they plan to be home.

At last, Stu breaks the silence.

STU: Well like I said, I’m exhausted… mind if I kip on yer floor?

He smirks playfully, running a hopeful hand through his hair. Phoebe snaps back to the realization that he barely slept last night.

PHOEBE: No, silly, take the couch.

Stu looks back at her almost guiltily; he knows he doesn’t deserve an ounce of the kindness she’s shown him what with how terrible he’s been to her. He seldom feels regret, but an unpleasant feeling – compassion, is it? – burns at the pit of his stomach. He knows he’ll owe her for this one, though he’ll never mention it out loud.

When Phoebe returns from putting everything back in its proper cabinet, Stu is already in a deep sleep, lying on his back with his head against the armrest.

She sits at the table, just watching him. He looks so innocent in sleep, his face free of creases and goofy smirks, finally peaceful. His tousled hair is drying now, the messy mop hanging over his eyes. He looks beautiful.

Immediately she regrets how sour she’s been toward him when he truly didn’t know how important that bag and the photo within it were to her. He hasn’t exactly made it up to her, but she wishes he would know she didn’t resent him. 

A bubbly feeling flutters in the bottom of her stomach. No. No, no.

Trying to force herself to forget it, she fusses around the house, checking in the kitchen to see whether maybe there are dishes to be washed. She doesn’t quite trust Stu enough to leave him downstairs alone.

She doesn’t want to watch him sleep. Does she?

As it turns out, her debate with herself is cut short when she hears the sound of a car pulling into the driveway.

They are home.

PHOEBE (shaking him awake): Stu… Stuart!

She nearly slaps his face before remembering it’s still injured. Stu opens his eyes, staring around groggily before straining to focus on her.

PHOEBE: My parents are home! You have to go!

She helps him off the couch in a hurry; he isn’t even fully awake as she pushes him toward the back door. The gods have smiled upon her fate; thankfully their backyards are connected. 

PHOEBE: Go, Stu. Go!

She shoos him off through the yard, slamming the door before he even has a chance to open his mouth.

Stu approaches the ivy-covered gate connecting her yard to his, slipping through to the backyard of his own place. Only when Phoebe realizes she’s safe does she flash back to how short she’s been, wishing she’d been able to say goodbye more politely. She hopes Stu’s aunt won’t be too hard on him… she’ll understand, won’t she? Will she question where Stu had gone to be patched up? Will she notice he’s come in through the backyard?

Phoebe jumps at the sudden sound of Vivian’s voice from the living room near the door.

VIVIAN: What’s this, Fi?

Phoebe hurries out to meet her, and to her horror, Vivian is holding dripping clothes.

Stu’s dripping clothes. 

He’s left them.