It is Wednesday 7th September, and I am sitting in the Volkswagen waiting for Aunt Amandine to finish her rogue pretend-to-say-goodbye-to-someone-in-the-house routine. This is her justification for not spending the money on getting a proper burglar alarm installed. It is roasting hot. Under the grill of the windscreen, I reset the quick of my nails back down to their appropriate base-line position with Amandine’s crystal-cut nail file which she keeps in the dashboard cup holder. I watch her in baffled silence.
“That’s right, Pete. We won’t be long. We’ll be back in 5 minutes. In fact, put the kettle on!”
Towser, our cat, stares back in confused silence from an upstairs window. I steal a Wrigley’s Extra lozenge as my aunt walks an unnecessarily large loop around the car to the driver’s side. Like an articulated lorry, my aunt requires extra space when changing direction.
“Right, and that’s us away,” she whispers conspiratorially with the satisfaction of a robber having pulled off a heist seamlessly. Her heavy plonk on the driver’s side makes the Volkswagen sink a little. “Just before we get your sports stuff, I’m going to drop that old hamster ball on the back seat round to Beth’s mum. Her sister’s got a new gerbil thing.”
“That’s a dangerous thing to do,” I say ominously.
Amandine opens a cylinder of Pringles and clamps them between her legs as she reverses the car out the drive.
“Should we really be colluding with that family’s inability to look after their pets?”
“Well, that’s a mean-spirited thing to say, darling. If you adopt that approach at your new school, you won’t have any friends.”
“I never had any friends before.”
A pause. My aunt’s face always drops when I talk about my terrible social standing at school. It’s the same face of baffled disappointment she wears upon discovering her iPod battery is flat after she’s left it on all night.
“I just don’t understand it,” she implores, hitting the steering wheel with her palm. “I mean you’re funny, you like cool music like Take That, you’re sensitive and you love your auntie. What’s not to like?”
“Indeed,” I say dryly pulling the conversation back. “I’m just saying, think of all the rodents the Revlington family have owned that have died under mysterious circumstances,” I nick a thick strata of Pringles, biting into them all at once. “Must be at least ten.”
“Well Beth’s mum has been very nice to me. She’s always been highly complementary of my Pavlovas.”
“Beth’s mum is pretentious. I don’t know how someone like her managed to grow someone nice like Beth inside her…”
“Well we’re going, darling, and that’s all there is to it.”
A beam of late-summer sun bounced off a distant pylon, shooting across a dead-flat cornfield like a laser. Suffolk’s got a bad rep, but I kind of like it. If you have to grow up with a geriatric auntie because your actual parents are absent, then I’d highly recommend undertaking this bolus of misfortune in the pancake-flat meadows and pleasantly boring villages of Suffolk. It even won Country Life’s ‘County of the Year’ seven years back – the same year that the Isle of Wight was designated a county of ‘Outstanding Natural Beauty’. Think of that competition! And yet it prevailed. Suffolk won. You have to admire the tenacity of a county like that.
Schools are different here, too. My new school that I’m starting next week has its first day of term on a Tuesday rather than a Monday like the rest of the country. I tell people that this is because our area is steeped in history and that once upon a time, the elders of the Lowestoft Codpiece Appreciation Society passed an edict stating that kiddies canst taak moore holidaye from schoole. In reality, it’s probably the decision of some bloke called Keith at the Ipswich Council offices who wanted to get home in time for The Chase. You’d be surprised how many people believe me, though. I am a consummate liar.
Beth lives down an unmade-up road outside Southwold. The sort of road that’s all the posher for being potholed. The houses are enormous and lurk behind 10-foot-high hedges or imposing electric gates that open and close indulgently slowly, with little eloquent creaks. We house riches, we house riches, we house riches.
No one quite knows what Beth’s parents do, but we think it’s something to do with insurance. Their house is always cold, because for some reason rich people are more likely to live in cold houses. Maybe it’s some weird kind of martyrdom. Perhaps they think living in the cold puts them more in touch with the common family and their plight. I don’t think I could ever fancy Beth. Actually, that’s not entirely true. There was a time, back at Cope Muir High, when I was 15 that Beth squished past me in order to get to the lockers beside my desk, and my body went: zing-a-ling. It was an automatic response. To be honest, I’m not even sure I was consciously aware it was Beth when I realised my body had gone zing-a-ling. At that point in proceedings, my body had probably just recognised the presence of ‘generic-girl’. Ergo, the zing-a-ling was not for Beth, per se, but for the universal femininity that a Beth represents (this is why sex scares me a bit; it disengages us from ourselves; it takes over unbidden. Cross Oneself.) Let’s say, on measure, that I do not fancy Beth.
I reach round to the back seat and clutch the hamster ball. I turn it round in the sun like a huge Fairy Liquid sud-bubble. At least I get to see Beth, I think. Beth and I go on walks sometimes. She’s one of the few people I know who doesn’t mind hearing that I am allergic to the anthriscus sylvestris genus of cow parsley and that this, in turn, has a detrimental effect on my exam performance. She wants to be a lawyer and has won at least two prizes each school year. Beth gets me. I should probably be nicer to her.
You can also tell Beth is posh because of the sound her doorbell makes. When I push it, it isn’t a simple ding dong. Nor is it an Only Fools and Horses style novelty jingle that only tedious people find funny. It is a long, sonorous, forbidding daaaaaaaaang doooooooong that seems to ricochet off the walls of the corridor. That’s what a clever bell it is: it gives you an advance-impression of the house’s dimensions before you are even inside. It works on the principle bats use to determine the interior of their lightless caves. Bats are considered evil because of their historic association with black magic. Cross oneself.
Jane Revlington appears behind the door.
“Hello, you two, lovely to see you. Do come on in.”
“Hello, Jane. Oh my, you’ve redecorated the hall! Look at the motif of those roses, how extraordinary. Is that William Morris?”
Jane closes the front door behind us, letting it glide the last few inches to the lock in all its stained glass, mahogany-panelled splendour. Ker-flunk. Meaty.
“Oh no, just Laura Ashley. Lovely though, isn’t it. Richard and I were in John Lewis and we just couldn’t resist.”
“It’s so… beautifully subversive. Extraordinary!”
This isn’t my Aunt Amandine talking. She’s gone rogue. She does this when in the company of posh people. I hate it when she puts on airs and graces. Take the words ‘extraordinary’ and ‘motif’, for instance. They are not part of her lexicon. In fact, the word ‘extraordinary’ isn’t part of anyone’s lexicon unless you’re either David Attenborough or went to Oxbridge. It is ridiculous. I loathe how it drips with pretension. It makes my skin crawl.
“And how are you, Patrick? Excited to start your new college?”
“Um, not ‘excited’ really,” I say, doing air inverted commas. “Kind of scared about the sport side of things in a way which is not-quite-fully-negated by my excitement for getting to use a Dewey decimal library.”
Jane’s face falls flat. I gaze back awaiting a reply. It’s confusing: after all, I offered a comprehensive response; the very least I can expect is a response to that response. Eventually the face-flatness melts into a smile.
“Oh, how marvellous. Dewey, indeed. I think I’ve got a book somewhere about a cat called Dewey. Splendid, splendid, Patrick. Here, come into the drawing room.” Jane ushers us into the humungous room, lined with oil paintings and a cornice that looks like it could be used to pipe the edges of a royal wedding cake.
In the corner sits Richard, Beth’s dad, concealed behind a broadsheet newspaper. He lowers his paper furtively eyeing our entry into his dominion like a British spy from the inter-war period. His armchair is one of those high-backed, embroidered varieties you get in rundown yet formerly glamorous hotels. He doesn’t bother getting up.
In the opposite corner sits Tilda, Beth’s younger sister with her new hamster, who scurries over her endlessly repeating hands. I smile at Tilda who looks up shyly. She smiles back, shifting her feet off the wide armchair to the floor so that her LA Gear flashy trainers activate against the coffee table leg. The effort of moving makes her squeeze the hamster a little too hard, making his eyes bulge like tiny black beads.
Jane glides back into the room with a yell up the stairwell to Beth. I reveal the hamster ball from within my coat and offer it up to Tilda.
“Oh, look at that, Tilda. Biscuit will adore a go in that. Wait ‘til we’re all here, then you can put him in and let him run around.”
(A hamster for a privileged young girl is basically a starter kit for the inevitable pony that’s to follow).
“Can’t we do it now, Mummy?”
“No, darling, wait ‘til we’re all here and I’ll close the door.”
Tilda humphs, lowering Biscuit back into his cage like a marine parachuting into an army compound.
“So, do you know what you want to do at uni yet, Paddy?”
“Not sure, probably History or English.”
“And after that?”
I look back blankly.
“What, after uni?”
This is a disgrace. Jane knows as well as every sentient mum knows that the question of what-one-is-going-to-do-with-ones-life is strictly off-limits to anyone under the age of 25. She is a mother of three; she apprehends this fully. I judge her internally and make a mental note never to forget the judgement.
“Umm. I have no idea…”
I clench my fists. In the top corner of the room, where the cornice takes a 90 degree turn, my eye catches a dividing line between two sheets of wallpaper. Whoever installed it clearly hadn’t paid proper attention to the pattern, and the repeating flower motif has been split so it doesn’t align properly, kind of like this: _ – -_. My thoughts suddenly dip, and I find myself trying to bat the image of a single magpie out of my head. Cross-Oneself. I paint three miniatures crucifixes on my forehead with the back of my thumb, disguising the move carefully to look like an itch-scratch.
“Very competitive,” Jane says forbiddingly with a hint of triumph. “Isn’t the acceptance rate 1 in 40, now, for things like that?” Her eyes widened as she said this, as if she was approaching the climax of a Stephen King novel. “I’d recommend you take a look at acceptance rates,” she adds, a little sparkle dancing behind her eyes, “Just so you know what to expect, you know? Janis’s boy up at Walberswick who went to . . . oh, where was it, Richard?”
“Liverpool John Moores,” Dad-Richard chips in between a catarrhy throat-clear.
“…Liverpool John Moores. He only got in through clearing. And he was a straight-A student.”
“Well, I’ll just have to try.”
“Absolutely, dear boy, absolutely. One can only do one’s best.”
A mini lip-curl.
“Yes. Indeed. But I agree, it’s hard.”
“It’s very hard, dear.”
“Too right, you can only do your best, my chick!” pipes up Aunt Amandine, taking her interest off a book that lay on the coffee table to hook me in for an impromptu hug that makes me tilt slightly. “You will be fine.” With that, she flashes a look at Jane… a kind of material lay off my cherub look; the type frequently offered by mothers when their young are under attack by nosy middle-class women with expensive taste in wallpaper.
“Mummy, can we now?”
“Oh, go on then, darling. I’ll bring in the tea. Be careful though.”
Tilda begins unscrewing the hamster ball before putting its two plastic hemispheres on the coffee table. They loll back and forth like a pair of nutshells.”
“Oooooo,” said Amandine, with faux-excitement.
“Be sure to screw it together properly, petal,” said Ricardo the Spy, from behind his newspaper.
Tilda drops the hamster into one of the ball halves like a teabag into a mug. Biscuit’s golden belly slinks round the sphere keeping a conformity with its dimensions, his little pink nose and tiny nylon whiskers sniffing out the grooves and bumps of his new real estate. He looks intrigued, genuinely amazed, and excited. If he were a sentient hamster, I imagine he’d be thinking: The feng shui of this property is not the greatest, but the views are sensational. Yes, I could probably make quite a decent home of it.
Tilda then sends Biscuit rolling along the floor in his new fun-globe. I move my feet out the way as he rolls past, bumping into a carved wooden chair leg with a little d-skk noise.
None of us saw Archibald the cat enter the room. Archibald is Beth’s cat. He is big and ginger and has one of those flat faces that some cats have that makes it look like he’s crashed into a brick wall at high speed.
“You better get the cat out, sweetheart,” said papa Ricardo, the chair-dwelling emissary. Tilda doesn’t hear or see. Biscuit rolls out from under the coffee table, thinking: Location, Location, Location.
It happens in an instant. With one pounce, Archibald the cat plunges down on the ball cracking it open, seizing Biscuit Llewelyn Bowen in his jaws.
“What is it, sweetie?”
“Archie has Biscuit!”
“Oh… God. Oh God, oh God, oh God.”
This is an unmitigated disaster. A time of inter-family emergency and need. The reputations of 17-year-olds are sealed for life over instances like this. These are the sort of the occasions where I come into my own. I have a talent for disaster mitigation.
“Where’s the feline?” I cry, straight-backed.
“He went into the kitchen.”
“Right, leave it to me.”
I leg it into the kitchen and get down on the floor. The large, stone tiles are
rough and cold on my hands as I kneel and look under an enormous dresser. Next door Tilda is wailing as her mum repeats a posh string of he’ll be oks like a scratched CD. Amandine joins me in the kitchen with a large wooden horse’s head attached to a stick; it has a small wheel on one end. I don’t know where she found it, but I earmark the object as a potentially invaluable aid.
“Can you nudge him out with this?”
“Negative. He’s too far in.”
Sucking in my belly, I worm along the floor, arms ahead of me under the dresser. I just manage to catch one of Archibald’s rear legs, which I use it to pull him towards me. I can see Biscuit in his mouth. He is thinking: This new home has its pitfalls.
With the cat out from under the dresser, I hold his scruff and prise his jaw apart. Biscuit drops to the floor and Amandine scoops him up smartly like a golden ingot.
“Got him.” She turns and lumbers back to the living room, hands cupped together, while I do-si-do around an angry, unneutered Archibald the cat whose claws have become unsheathed.
Back in the living room, it is clear all is not well. Biscuit is bleeding. A little puncture wound is oozing along his chest; a great jam-hole in a doughnut. Tilda is a screeching banshee.
“We better take him to the vet. Richard, where are the car keys?”
“You won’t all get in the car, Janey. I’ve still got the lawnmower in the back.”
“I can drive us,” shouts Aunt Amandine.
We run to the door like a set of demented contestants in I’m A Celebrity…, and head out to the driveway, each drunk on our rocketing levels of venous adrenaline. Tilda has Biscuit back in his ball which she is holding between her palms like a soothsayer’s orb.
Amandine screeches out the drive with Beth, Tilda, Jane and I still doing up our seatbelts.
“Where am I going, Jane?”
“It’s at the end of Beckett Avenue on the right next to the Café Rouge, darling.”
The inside of the vet is lit with halogen lights. Our breath slowing, we sit down on a line of plastic chairs in one corner by a watercooler. People squelch up and down the rubber floor around us looking important. Over my right shoulder, a yucca plant climbs up the plate-glass window which has been frosted half way up with pictures of a dog, a cat and a rabbit in order of descending size. I notice that a hamster isn’t included within the scale-range of animals depicted and wonder whether this might be a problem. A terrier with a cone on its head sits alongside us, looking over its shoulder at intervals at Tilda’s intermittent sobs. A little postage stamp of brown hair is missing from its lower abdomen. Up the wall a Pedigree Chum sponsored clock ticks, its second hand wobbling a bit after each movement. Tuck-Tuck-Tuck- Tuck-Tuck-Tuck.
The nurse emerges in her loose green smock, smiling kindly. A slight look of alarm spreads across her face as she witnesses four of us advance towards her in unison.
“A big family, you’ve got Biscuit,” the vet states flatly as we all compress into the tiny surgery room. I am careful to close the door behind.
“So, what seems to have happened?”
Amandine and Jane go to speak at once. Jane prevails.
“It was running around in the ball, when our cat pounced and got it in its mouth. It’s bleeding pretty badly.”
“His name is“Biscuit”!”
“OK, darling, OK, OK.” Jane stroked her daughter’s head. I notice Tilda’s hair is flaxen blonde, unlike Beth’s, and briefly wonder whether Jane is the type to have a dalliance with a young Habitat designer of Aryan descent.
“Well let’s have a little look then, shall we.”
The vet moves the Perspex ball towards her, addressing each of us in the group with some high-quality eye contact.
“The good thing about a cat’s bite,” she states with calm authority, “is that it is often quite soft, initially, as they like to toy with their prey. Hopefully Biscuit’s just suffered a little nip.”
Carefully, with a strange reverence, the vet unscrews the plastic globe.
“Has biscuit had all his vaccinations, do you know?”
“OK that’s good. Well he’s nice and energetic; that’s a good sign…”
Reaching in the vet grasps the struggling hamster between finger and thumb. Biscuit, however, is less considerate and bites down on her thumb with all his might.
“Oww, F***!” The vet screeches, instinctively flicking her finger upwards, sending Biscuit flying at warp velocity towards the ceiling.
There is loose-sounding thwack as Biscuit hits the light diffuser. Then a thud as he hits the vet’s hard rubber examination table 0.8 seconds later.
Breath held, all six of us peers down. After some seconds of silence, the vet nervously pokes Biscuit with a forefinger. Stone dead.
Me and Aunt Amandine never did manage to get my school uniform that day. At least Biscuit’s demise was swift, I suppose. Later I wonder whether my subconscious foreshadowed the whole event because I’d noticed the misaligned wallpaper and had the image-flash of multiple single magpies. Later that evening, I speak to Beth on the phone, and she says her Mum is considering suing the vet. I can’t draw my head away from the image of Biscuit splatting on the veterinary table. The whole thing was both funny and tragic in equal measure, and my mind doesn’t know how to compute that. Oh, Archibald, why did you have to unsheathe your claws and put us through all of this?