DEAD FLIES AND SHERRY TRIFLE (an extract)
SUNDAY 11TH JULY 1976
Going South for Summer
I must be the last to leave. The hall of residence that has been home for my first year at university has a deserted feel, like a ghost town. My best mate Gary Dobbs (the Dobbin to one and all) left an hour ago, trying to cheer me up with a promise to write and a vague suggestion we go to France for a holiday before our second year starts. He left me Amanda as a sort of consolation prize because I was so miserable. She is a trophy from a rather boozy night after the end of the exams; a four-foot high cardboard blonde who he ‘rescued’ from outside Boots, where she was offering their twenty-four hour film processing services. The Dobbin named her Amanda after some former girlfriend.
Someone hammers on my door. Briefly I hope it’s the Dobbin returned. I’m smiling as I imagine the ‘Hey, Spittoon, fancy a last beer?’ That’s my nickname, which is ok when your real name is Harry Spittle.
It’s not. Instead, blocking the doorway is Stephen McNoble.
We eye each other suspiciously. There’s no way he’s here to see me off with a cheery wave and wish me a happy holidays. For some unexplained reason, since Easter he has gone out of his way to get up my nose, trip me up, adulterate my food and generally be a pain in the arse. If that wasn’t bad enough, in the last two to three weeks, he’s punched me twice, tried to twist off my right nipple and come within an inch of hitting me with a hubcap, which he said he was using as a Frisbee.
McNoble takes a step forward and closes the door behind him. I can feel the sweat beginning to pool behind my ears and drip down my temples; if he attacks now, no one will hear my screams. I’m only here this late because of Professor Bloody Bradshaw and his ‘little chat’ about my ‘unique’ exam results. If McNoble kills me I’ll haunt Bradshaw.
“I just want a chat.” McNoble’s eyes bulge with the strain of not hitting me. As an afterthought he adds, “Harry.”
That’s another thing. I didn’t think he even knew who I was until his reign of terror began and since then he’s only called me ‘bastard’ or ‘the bastard’. And the idea of a chat is a joke; since our first contact he’s barely formed a complete sentence. He deals in grunts and thumps. There is something unhinged and inhuman about McNoble though it’s difficult to say what exactly; he has the usual complement of limbs and facial features and he dresses like most university students. But if he’s not a different species, then he has to be a different subset of hominid: Homo Rightbastardus or something.
Since I opened the door he has been moving towards me and I’ve backed away. I can feel my bed pressing against my legs and I’m just wondering what to do if he doesn’t stop when an older man opens the door and steps into the room. “There you are.” This stranger is a complete contrast to the muscle-bound McNoble: lean with greying, bubble-permed hair, a loud cheesecloth shirt and a droopy moustache. He and McNoble immediately ignore each other in such a deliberate way that they have to be father and son.
While I cross my arms to protect my nipples, McNoble begins to chew the inside of his mouth; in another life it could well have been my spleen.
Mr Skinny moves forward, hand outstretched. “Harry Spittle?” He has an oddly limp shake. He says, “I’m Charlie. Claude’s Dad.” He begins shaking his head, then nodding while grinning stupidly. “A Spittle, eh? Just think.”
A lot of people laugh at my name. It is unusual, I grant you. It might have well-established Scottish origins but causes no end of mirth, though normally grownups manage to hide the sniggers. Not this one; mind you, if he’s McNoble’s Dad I’m not entirely surprised he’s a jerk. It takes a moment to process that he has just called Stephen McNoble, Claude. I glance at the silverback; he looks even less chuffed than normal.
“Claude?” I do well not to laugh; probably a nervous reaction to the reprieve.
The man – Charlie – nods some more. “You’ll know him as Stephen, won’t you? Stephen’s his middle name though.”
“It’s my only name.” McNoble sounds so deeply pissed off that I think he might actually hit Père McNoble – which would be welcome if it meant he left me alone.
“Yes alright. His real name is Claude Stephen Jepson, only his Mother and I are divorced so it’s Stephen McNoble, apparently. He’s kept his Mother’s maiden name. Silly really, not that I mind. Nothing special about Jepson, I suppose.” His eyebrows shoot up, suggesting it’s just a bit of fun, but the rest of his expression suggests he is deeply offended. He goes on, “I just wanted to say how-do because when I spotted your name last Easter – I was here to drop him off – I thought ‘there can’t be that many Harry Spittles’.”
I glance at McNoble. He’s taken an interest in Amanda and is pretending not to listen. There has to be a link between this man, Charlie Jepson, spotting my name and McNoble’s campaign of hatred. Not that I have any clue what.
The nodding has increased. Something will soon come loose. Mr Jepson says, “You have your Mother’s forehead. And eyes.”
This is all rather disconcerting. He knows Mum? The idea I have some, albeit tenuous, link to McNoble’s family is horrifying. Mr Jepson rubs his hands together. “So you off home? Still live in the New Forest?” He doesn’t really pause to give me a chance to answer. “Great place for the holidays. All that lovely countryside, the peaceful lanes, the ponies, the pubs – I bet there are lots of free-spirited girls looking for a holiday romance, eh?” He winks. Just for a moment he looks like McNoble. “I bet you have fun with the girls, eh? Handsome boy like you.”
I get this ‘Isn’t the New bloody Forest wonderful’ blather from adults all the time, especially from those who have never visited. What they don’t understand is that it is full of gorse and scratching heather and brambles that ensure every walk is an experience in giving blood; and if you avoid them there are bogs that breed midges with bites like crocodiles and which, when you miss your step, as you do, suck off your shoe. The revered ponies crap everywhere and block the lanes and occasionally drop their afterbirth where you’re least expecting it. And, if by some mistake you get too close they will try and bite you in the belief you’re a grockle offering food, or practise drop kicking you into the Solent. And no one of my age willingly holidays in the Forest. There are two sorts who visit: ancient ramblers who dress in plastic clothes and have knees like fossilised sheep’s turds and anglers with names like Leonard and Tony and Sid, who sit under umbrellas all day, eating cheese sandwiches. The pubs welcome these grockles, but refuse to serve anyone under twenty because someone who looks vaguely like you once threw up in their prize-winning window box and lost them Regional Pub of the Month for August 1974. Anyway, how many girls are so desperate that they’ll jump at a snog with a spotty, penniless nineteen year old with over-active sweat glands and bugger-all transport?
Mr Jepson pulls me back to the moment by taking hold of my arms and shaking me a little; he looks like he might burst with excitement. “Harry Spittle. I can see your Mother so clearly. And is that Arthur’s nose?” He twists his neck, making it click and for a moment he stops nodding, like he’s checking he’s not accidentally made himself a paraplegic. “I suppose you’re off home then?” He does like to repeat himself.
When I don’t answer he looks around at McNoble, who holds up some keys and says. “These need to go back to the bursar’s office. Could you take them, Dad? I want to say bye to Harry.”
“Oh. Right.” Mr Jepson glances at me. “Won’t be a mo.” And he’s gone like a will-o’-the-wisp before I have a chance to beg him to stay.
As soon as the door has closed, McNoble lurches for me. I do the only sane thing and jump the bed so the mattress is between us. “Now, be calm… Claude.”
“Don’t call me that, bastard.” He’s primed and ready to spring.
“How does he know my family?”
“He grew up in the New Forest. That’s when he met your parents. He asked me to mention him to you so if he asks, I did. Ok?”
“Ok. Why didn’t you?”
He doesn’t answer. Instead he begins to move left so I go right. It’s like the wrestling with Mick McManus and Big Daddy only without the referee and no chance he’ll accept a submission.
“And one other thing.” He stops, breathing heavily.
He goes right and I slid across my desk so it is between me and multiple dislocations.
He says, “The urn. Don’t mention the urn. Or your shitty box.”
“Why would I?”
Once again he tries the old feint-left-and-dart-right manoeuvre but he tangles with my cardboard friend, Amanda, and falls backward onto the bed. I take my chance and grab the door handle only to find the exit blocked by Mr Jepson.
“Hey? You off?”
I step back, shaking my head. Mr Jepson surveys the scene suspiciously. “So what were you two doing?”
I manage a small smile; a mad urge overwhelms me as I say, “Oh just talking about the urn.”
Immediately Mr Jepson’s face crumples. The nodding takes on a more solemn aspect. “You know about Mother, do you? Claude mentioned her, I suppose. That’s partly why I wanted a word. Since we’ll be in the Forest for her memorial service, I wondered if your parents might want to come. Your Mother knew my Mother. They were quite close, once upon a time.”
“Close?” I eye McNoble who is behind his Father and is making a sinister cutting movement with his flat hand across his throat. “Like friends?”
“Oh yes. We all were. A long time ago. I thought if I had your address I could drop them a line. Or maybe call round. There’ll be a ceremony, a few drinks, that sort of thing.”
“Ceremony?” The need to repeat oneself is catching.
“We will be spreading her ashes.” He nods, more a wobble really. “So, your address?”
Reluctantly I give it to him. I want to lie but I don’t have the imagination. While I’m wishing they would leave, Mr Jepson spies Amanda and bends to pick her up. He sniggers. It’s such a ridiculous noise in a grown man. “And who is this?” He peers at the scratchy writing across her chest. “Amanda Spittle? Nice.” While he turns Amanda round in his hands, inspecting her a mite too closely, the room begins to fill with a sinister silence. Eventually Mr Jepson says, “Right, well we have to get off and meet with Claude’s Mother for lunch. Can we drop you at the station?”
But he’ll have none of my protests. He takes a case and I pick up my rucksack. I’m very keen to stick close to Mr Jepson but somehow McNoble is in my way. Mr Jepson is already some feet ahead. McNoble pushes me onto the bed and leans over me.
“Shut up, bastard. If my Dad does come and visit, just keep your Mum off him, right? And shut up about the urn or your crappy box or anything.” He scans the room and his gaze alights on Amanda. He pulls out his red penknife, which I’ve seen a few times but this is the first occasion when I’m genuinely scared in its presence. McNoble looks seriously demented. “Otherwise…” He digs the knife into the cardboard, making a cross cut before pressing with his thumbs. There’s a crack and a pop and when he holds her up, there’s a new opening. “I’ll do that to you, knife or no knife. I’ll change your effing sex.”
I’ve had enough. I begin to run after Mr Jepson who is whistling ‘Goodbye to Love’ by the Carpenters. He looks at me, misty eyed. “It’ll be lovely to see Veronica again.”
According to the clock on the dashboard, the journey to the station takes twenty-seven minutes. Mr Jepson keeps up a stream of chatter while McNoble stays silent. For my part I spend most of the time easing some flies that are trapped in the back out of the rear window. Mr Jepson catches me in the act as we wait at a traffic light. “Why are you doing that?”
I can’t really explain why I have this thing about saving flies. Maybe it’s because, as a young child, I saw Mum paint over a horsefly who’d bitten her while she was touching up the kitchen window frame. It squiggled and squirmed and I cried until she told me off. When Dad asked why I was upset, Mum told him I was a ‘softie’ and he said, in a stupid voice, ‘Mum would never hurt a fly,’ and they both laughed. It’s such a vivid memory.
Mr Jepson nods, as per. “God knows where they’ve all come from. Maybe the box is attracting them.” He catches my gaze in the rear-view mirror; I’m very aware from the way McNoble has tensed that he has to be talking about my box. Mr Jepson asks, “You hear about the accident?”
Even though he’s looking away from me I can feel McNoble’s stiletto stare just as much as if it was slicing into my forehead. I manage a shake. In extremis, I can lie it seems.
Mr Jepson goes on. “One of those things. It seems some oaf broke Mother’s urn but Claude managed to get this lovely old box and she’s in there. It’s a nice touch and she would have liked it, but the fact the lid doesn’t quite fit must be encouraging those little blighters.”
McNoble turns slowly and meets my gaze. Something passes between us, like a righting of the scales, a restoring of equilibrium: he knows where I live, but he also knows that I know he has lied to his Father about the urn breaking (he ran into me when holding it – definitely his fault) and the box (I gave it to him to stop him beating me senseless).
When we’ve stopped and my bags are on the pavement I shake the wet fish that is Mr Jepson’s hand again. “Have a good summer, Harry.”
I watch them drive away and then pick up Amanda; she continues to smile enigmatically at me, promising to round off my holidays perfectly. As I head for the station the sweat cascades from my nose and chin. I think these summer holidays will be the hottest and shittiest since they invented the thermometer.
Home Sweet Home
After four gruesome hours of train and hitching I reach Lymington. It’s only another two miles, but there are sod-all lifts so I walk. By the time my house looms into view I’m saturated, exhausted and need food, even Mum’s – cooking is not amongst her top fifty talents. My cheery ‘hallooo’ echoes back to me – no reception committee then. ‘Home’ is what’s known as a ‘New Forest Cottage’, a pretty ridiculous title for a three-storied pile of ugly brick and old slate. The ancient roof fills Dad’s waking hours with worry in the winter months and the whitewashed walls turn pink from the damp and algae every September and go back to white when they warm up in the spring. It is one of five houses in a small cluster by a T-junction, where a narrow lane meets the main road. Opposite there are a dozen large greenhouses for growing cucumbers but otherwise we are surrounded by fields, which act as a cordon sanitaire keeping the sodding Forest at bay.
Inside it is more decrepit than I remember – paint flaking off the skirting boards and cobwebs hanging from the lights. It is usually spotless; my parents run a B&B, you see. That means the first floor is out of bounds – we sleep in the roof space so I drag everything up the two flights. Even if I close my eye, I know I’m in my room with its smell of mouldering socks and mothballs. The bed hasn’t been made and there are paint tins and rolls of wallpaper stacked against the far wall. A real ‘welcome home, Harry.’
I tuck Amanda away – she won’t last if Mum finds her – and head for the kitchen. Here I encounter the first sign of life: our malevolent cat, Rascal, lying on the boiler. The room is oddly hazy like there’s a sea fret blowing in. My hunt for food takes me first to the fridge: there’s a lump of extra hard cheddar that I suck to make chewable. Next I touch the oven. It’s warm and optimistically I pull it open. A foul smelling miasma envelopes me, which probably explains the haze; as it clears I can see a roasting tin containing a block of coal carved into the shape of a leg of lamb – dinner. There’s a pan on the stove that’s also warm – it holds a strange lumpy orange soup that suggests carrots but smells of boiled handkerchiefs.
Before I go looking further, I heave up the sash window to get some fresh air and catch some aural crap floating in on the warm evening breeze. My kid sister is somewhere down the garden. Chewing my cheesy prize, I head off to find her. It’s Emerson Lake and Palmer – like synthesized fingers down the blackboard. The volume alone confirms that neither Mum or Dad are about.
She’s at the far end of the garden, beyond the gazebo. Dina may be sixteen, but in attitude she can veer from a snotty six to a smug twenty-six in the blink of an eye. She used to be pretty gross, a sort of human space hopper but this year the fatty bits seem to have migrated to her chest, which suggest she may be a female human after all. She never ever gets spots – unlike me – it’s only her personality that’s riddled with acne.
Dina is in a red bikini, lying on a towel. I’m still twenty feet away when I detect a familiar herby tang. I try out my ‘Dad’ voice. “Dina, what are you doing?”
I’m pleasantly surprised how high she jumps and the way her face is empty of any colour when her head spins round. “Jesus, cheese face, you might have killed me.” With one hand she tries to bat away the stench of the joint while the other shoves the lid on an old tobacco tin.
I say, “Nice welcome home. Where’s everyone?”
I’m ignored as she begins to collect up her things.
“I assume the burnt offering in the oven is dinner?”
She pulls a dress over her head and stands to face me. “The reason no one is here, and the reason dinner’s become a sacrifice to the gods, is because Nanty is in hospital.” Nanty is our Great Aunt Edna – Mum’s Aunt.
With that she pushes past me and makes for the house. I follow a couple of paces behind. “What happened?”
“She fell.” Dina speeds up but I keep pace with her easily.
“Is she ok?”
We reach the gazebo and she stops to pull away a loose board at the back. “She tripped over some of Mum’s painting stuff – broke her arm,” Dina stuffs the tin in a gap and pushes the board back in place, “concussion, loss of speech.” She twists to glare at me. “Yeah, she’s fine.”
She’s clearly intent on going indoors so I grab her arm to stop her. “Just hold on. What’s up with you? When did it happen?”
She holds my gaze with a ferocious scowl until I let her go. It’s like so many of our numerous standoffs from down the years. In the past it would probably end with her beating me with her fists, me retaliating and her crying to Mum. This time she just stares. One slow tear builds in the corner of her eye and slides down her cheek.
Her head drops forward and she shudders. “It’s awful, H. Really awful.” She only uses ‘H’ when things are bad – or she wants something.
We sit in the gazebo; there’s no air here and the sweat runs from my arms, down my fingers and makes dark spots by my feet. While I watch the dots grow and form a row of knuckles in the dust, she explains what’s been happening: Nanty’s accident followed the loss of all the bookings for the B&B, which followed some epic arguments between our parents, which followed the Mother of all battles between Mum and her sister, our Aunt Petunia, over my Grandfather’s, their Father’s, will. At least that’s what I think she says because she snuffles a lot.
It is plain things have been going haywire for some time yet no one has mentioned it to me. I’m wondering why this is when I realise she’s stopped talking and has leant right forward. Somehow she’s pulled her foot to her and is chewing the skin by her big toe.
“Do you have to do that?”
She stops and looks at her toes and then up at me. “Is that all you can say? Haven’t you been listening?”
“Yeah sure, but that’s disgusting.”
She picks out something from between her front teeth. “I knew you wouldn’t care. You never write or call.”
“Someone could have written and told me…” I can see her profile; she looks really miserable and suddenly I feel guilty at how I’ve ignored all her letters, everyone’s letters. “I’m sorry. You’re right. Ok. First, is Nanty going to be alright?”
She nods. “They say she’ll recover but it may take some time.”
“And why have the guests cancelled? July’s always the best month.”
She pushes herself up. “First come and see this.”
We head, not to the house, but over to Mum’s vegetable plot. I stop by a line of carrots and pull one up. It’s twisted and full of holes. “Geez, these are pathetic. Is it this drought?” I look around. “Where are her pumpkins?” Mum grows prize-winning pumpkins; it’s a family joke – that frankly is too close to the truth to be funny – that she pours more love into them than she does into her children.
Dina’s sniffing reaches a gloopy conclusion; to stop the accumulated mucus enveloping South Hampshire, she gulps some air and wipes a snail-trail of snot down her arm. “She had to replant them down by the stream; I’ll show you sometime. They’re well hidden.”
“To avoid the pumpkin vandal. Oh, we’ve had it all, H. Here, take a look at this lot.” We’re standing by a row of plastic bags and cloches. “Quatermass meets Percy Thrower.” Inside the cloches are a range of different vegetables, some tied with odd bits of string and some in wire cages. She says, “So what do you think she’s up to?”
“They’ve introduced an alien vegetable section in the Flower Show?”
Dina says, “Try again. And remember she’s bonkers.” She smiles enigmatically, reminding me briefly of Amanda; I shake my head hard – there’s something wrong with my brain if it is linking my sister to the bikini clad vision in my room. While I continue to try and expunge the image, she stamps on one of the bags. “Stupid bloody cow.”
I stare at Dina. She hardly ever – no, make that never – swears.
For her part she straightens the crushed bag, pulls her shoulders back and says, “Let’s see if Dad’s hidden any sweets in his shed – I found some sherbet bon-bons last week – and I’ll explain.”
“I don’t know… he counts his sweets and…”
“Oh shut up, Mister Sensible.” For the first time since I got home, she smiles – I’d forgotten how cheering her smile can be – and says, “You’re a big girl’s blouse, aren’t you?” She brushes my arm with her fingers. “I’m glad you’re home. Really.”
Dad’s shed is full of the detritus of his many passions: his collectables, his magazines, his correspondence, his 1957 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, his crappy record player and his collection of Elvis LPs and EPs. He seems to be making something from an old bean tin, like small cymbals. Soaking in a saucer is his spare glass eye; he lost his left eye while on National Service when he was involved in a nasty accident. For some reason the spare tends to go green if he doesn’t disinfect it regularly. It’s horrid, like part of him is still there, watching me as I go on a sweet hunt.
Dina settles into his old wing-backed chair, with her hands folded in her lap. She looks like she’s presenting Jackanory. She picks at fluff on an old blanket draped over the arm. “He slept here last night. And two nights last week. It’s not been good.” She leans back and closes her eyes. “It started a few weeks back. June sometime. That group who come for a fortnight to fish at Hatchet Ponds…”
“Leonard, Tony and Sid.”
“Yep. They cancelled. Sid was made redundant and Leonard had to have an operation or something. May was wet as well and the bank holidays were disastrous. I heard Dad moaning at her not giving the business her full attention but that was when the first pumpkins were attacked so she was dealing with that and this year she’s secretary of the WI and heavily involved with its guest speakers and the summer concert.”
“What’s with this vandalism stuff?”
Dina deepens her voice, sounding like Mum, “It’s all very sinister, dear – someone destroyed a lot of plants.” She points at a shelf to my left. “Try that tin; he’s hidden them there before. Mum set up some sort of informal policing – you know Mum, she got a bit carried away so Dad was left in charge of the B&B.” She waits until I look at her; she’s pulling a face. “He decided to advertise again…”
“Christ, he didn’t? After all the fuss she made about his sign last year?” Dad painted this huge sign for the B&B which blew into a passing car, causing several hundred pounds of damage. Mum made this big thing about not needing to advertise; she believes we should rely on recommendations.
“Precisely. He didn’t tell her. I only know about it because I overheard him talking to the paper about it. Of course she found out.”
“Did she go mad?”
“You could say. Thing is H, she’d didn’t spot it; the first thing she knew about it was when Aunt Petunia called her to crow about a mistake in our phone number. Aunt loved the idea it was Mum’s incompetence.”
“I bet she did. Poor Dad.”
“It gets worse. While Mum had a real go at the paper and got the money back Dad applied to have us registered for Golden Oak Leaves – it’s this new rating system for B&Bs.”
“Surely Mum would love that. It would give her something to boast about.”
“Dad didn’t tell her so when this inspector came to stay and began complaining Mum gave as good as she got. You know what she’s like. Then he got food poisoning and sort of said she did it deliberately.”
“And the paper got hold of the story – they made a big thing of it – Mum’s sure it was sour grapes because she’d got a refund. Then the Daily Express picked it up…”
“Oh God. Was that Aunt Petunia?”
Dina nods, “Uncle Norman’s nephew works there. After that – poof – no more bookings and a load of cancellations.” Norman is Aunt’s husband. “Of course she blames Dad and he says she made it worse.”
“Bloody Aunt. She’s a real cow.”
Dina nods. “It all about Grandpa’s will – don’t ask me what exactly but even before the fiasco with the inspector there were a couple of really frosty family lunches – something about needing to change the bequests because they are so unfair. It all came to a head last Sunday. That’s when Mum accused Dad of siding with Aunt and Uncle.”
“Wow. That’s a mandatory death sentence, isn’t it? What’s he meant to have done?”
She shrugs. “He’s started helping Norman at the garage. Mum wants him here, redecorating, but he’s told her Norman’s needs are more pressing. Try that tin.” Just to the right of my head there’s a tin marked ‘poison’. It’s full of humbugs. We each take one and sit facing each other.
“So what’s with the mutant veg?”
Dina takes out her sweet and inspects it; then she picks up the glass eye out of the jar and holds both the sweet and the eye in front of her face.
“God you’re sick. Don’t put the wrong one back.”
She says, “Mum’s trying to grow a carrot that looks like Bruce Forsyth or a tomato like Ted Heath, or a courgette shaped like a thingy. Her great idea is to send the best one off to That’s Life. In her mind, she gets invited on the show, flirts with Cyril Fletcher, gets included in his Odd Ode and plugs the B&B; when she gets back her appearance is sure to be written up in the paper and then run in all the dailies. Free publicity, she says; Dad says she’s a hypocrite because that is all advertising. He threatened to grow a ponytail if she succeeds.” She licks her sweet and says, “Dad’s been working for Mr Anacide in his bike shop as well. He’s hardly ever here.” She takes out the sweet again and pulls a face like it has suddenly turned bitter.
I don’t know what to say. Mum and Dad are always finding something to row about, so is this any different? Dina clearly wants me to agree with her, but all I can think about is Dad being at the garage. You see, last Easter Nanty said I could help her with the garage admin during the summer holidays – Nanty does the book keeping for both Uncle’s garage and our B&B; she’s the only one in our family who really understands sums – Uncle says that the garage would collapse without Nanty doing ‘the sodding admin’. That was to be my summer job – my money – but if Dad’s involved it’ll never happen. I can already hear him: ‘Harry old son, it’s pretty difficult this stuff – you’d better leave it to me.’
Dina wipes her nose again. She’s said something, which I don’t think I heard right. “What?”
She gazes back at me. “I said they’re going to divorce.”
Biking for Boys
We find a rice pudding under some muslin in the pantry. A couple of dead flies are lying on the skin. The cause of their deaths becomes clear when we try and break through the surface: it’s not so much set as vulcanised; they must have perished like kamikaze pilots of old. Dina offers to make us tea and toast while I go into the garage to check on my pushbike, my only hope of escape from home isolation.
Dina brings her cassette machine. It’s playing Genesis.
I shudder. “Can’t we have something else?”
Dina digs out the transistor Mum uses when gardening. After fiddling with the tuning an awful squawking echoes round the room. ‘A Little Bit More’ by Dr Hook. If you ask me, it’s ‘A Lot too Much’ made worse by Dina singing along.
I attack the crusted mud on the bicycle, which comes away in satisfying chunks exposing acres of rust; I hope it wasn’t holding the frame together. For a while I forget Dina’s there as I tug at the chain and gears, liberally squirting oil where I can. We are treated to some America and Harry Nilsson. It must be twenty minutes or so before she says, “Janice says they’re at a classic stage leading to divorce.”
“Janice is what? Sixteen? Seventeen? Since when was she a divorce expert? A know-all, yes but not an expert. Can you grab the handlebars?” The brakes do a neat impersonation of Demis Roussos. “They’re not going to divorce. If they went on Mastermind, Dad would specialise in ‘Winding Up Mum’ and she’d have questions on ‘How to Patronise Dad’.”
Dina’s knuckles have gone white as she hangs on while I try and heave the front wheel round. She says, rather breathlessly, “Janice’s Mum and Dad divorced last year and she says they spent most evenings in their sitting room refusing to speak to each other. And then her Dad had an affair with the cleaner at his school…”
“Thanks. That’s freed it.” I look at her; she’s definitely worried. “Who’s Dad going to have an affair with? Colin Anacide? Those old boys he plays shove ha’penny with at the Wheel? Susan Glebe?” Ms Glebe lives in one of the other cottages across the lane; we’re sure she’s a lesbian because she wears corduroy trousers, smokes cheroots and likes opera.
“You don’t understand, H. It’s Mum I’m worried about. She’s been going out loads with Mrs Martin. She even borrowed my eye shadow one time.”
“That’s your evidence? It might be proof of a lack of taste, but not divorce.”
“I simply don’t believe it.” I lean the bike against the wall. “That’ll have to do. Now, stop worrying. They’re just on edge because of the lack of guests. And Nanty, of course.”
She stares at her lap as she swings her legs to and fro but she’s given up arguing.
I say, “Right, well, I’m going to wash my hands and then go and see Ruth.”
It’s rather disconcerting how that cheers her up. “Did she tell you about her and God?”
I’m bloody sure, from her expression, that she knows I don’t know what she’s talking about. I say, “I… we haven’t had the time to write, what with exams.”
She’s off the bench and bouncing on the balls of her feet, all her energy restored. “Everyone knows. Ruth suddenly started going to the same Bible classes that Janice goes to and…” She misses my “bloody Janice” and ploughs on. “…and it’s like she’s gone all devout. Janice says she only goes to make sure her Mum gives her pocket money, but Ruth is really keen.”
I don’t want to believe her but it sounds just like the sort of stupid thing Ruth would do. “You can be a Christian and still have a boyfriend.”
Dina twists her face into a grin. “Yeah but it won’t be so much fun, will it?”
I spin the wheel to avoid looking at Dina. Is there something in the Bible that prohibits breast fondling? There’s only one way to find out. I’m halfway to the door when Rascal sidles into the garage and studies me through yellowy calculating eyes. To reinforce who is the alpha male here he opens his right paw to inspect his talons.
Dina makes a purring noise. “He’s come to welcome you home.”
I have too many scars to believe that. As he slinks away I have this momentary picture of Rascal as a feline McNoble. They both inflict pain without a second thought. I wonder which of them would win if they fought each other? I suppose the truth is they’d just gang up on me.