Do not set foot in my office. Thats Dads rule. But the phoned rung twenty-five
times. Normal people give up after ten or eleven, unless its a matter of
life or death. Dont they? Dads got an answering machine like James Garners
in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape. But hes stopped leaving it
switched on recently. Thirty rings, the phone got to. Julia couldnt hear it up
in her converted attic cause “Dont You Want Me?” by Human League was
thumping out dead loud. Forty rings. Mum couldnt hear cause the washing
machine was on berserk cycle and she was hoovering the living room. Fifty
rings. Thats just not normal. Spose Dadd been mangled by a juggernaut on
the M5 and the police only had this office number cause all his other I.D.d
got incinerated? We could lose our final chance to see our charred father in
the terminal ward.
So I went in, thinking of a bride going into Bluebeards chamber after
being told not to. (Bluebeard, mind, was waiting for that to happen.) Dads office
smells of pound notes, papery but metallic too. The blinds were down so
it felt like evening, not ten in the morning. Theres a serious clock on the
wall, exactly the same make as the serious clocks on the walls at school.
Theres a photo of Dad shaking hands with Craig Salt when Dad got made regional
sales director for Greenland. (Greenland the supermarket chain, not
Greenland the country.) Dads IBM computer sits on the steel desk. Thousands
of pounds, IBMs cost. The office phones red like a nuclear hotline and
its got buttons you push, not the dial you get on normal phones.
So anyway, I took a deep breath, picked up the receiver, and said our
number. I can say that without stammering, at least. Usually.
But the person on the other end didnt answer.
"Hello?” I said. “Hello?”
They breathed in like theyd cut themselves on paper.
“Can you hear me? I cant hear you.”
Very faint, I recognized the Sesame Street music.
“If you can hear me”—I remembered a Childrens Film Foundation film
where this happened—“tap the phone, once.”
There was no tap, just more Sesame Street.
“You might have the wrong number,” I said, wondering.
A baby began wailing and the receiver was slammed down.
When people listen they make a listening noise.
Id heard it, so theyd heard me.
“May as well be hanged for a sheep as hanged for a handkerchief.” Miss
Throckmorton taught us that aeons ago. Cause Id sort of had a reason to
have come into the forbidden chamber, I peered through Dads razor-sharp
blind, over the glebe, past the cockerel tree, over more fields, up to the
Malvern Hills. Pale morning, icy sky, frosted crusts on the hills, but no sign of
sticking snow, worse luck. Dads swivelly chairs a lot like the Millennium
Falcons laser tower. I blasted away at the skyful of Russian MiGs streaming
over the Malverns. Soon tens of thousands of people between here and
Cardiff owed me their lives. The glebe was littered with mangled fusilages
and blackened wings. Id shoot the Soviet airmen with tranquilizer darts as
they pressed their ejector seats. Our marinesll mop them up. Id refuse all
medals. “Thanks, but no thanks,” Id tell Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan
when Mum invited them in, “I was just doing my job.”
Dads got this fab pencil sharpener clamped to his desk. It makes pencils
sharp enough to puncture body armor. H pencilsre sharpest, theyre Dads
faves. I prefer 2Bs.
The doorbell went. I put the blind back to how it was, checked Id left no
other traces of my incursion, slipped out, and flew downstairs to see who it
was. The last six steps I took in one death-defying bound.
Moron, grinny-zitty as ever. His bumfluffs getting thicker, mind. “Youll
never guess what!”
“You know the lake in the woods?”
“What about it?”
“Its only”—Moron checked that we werent being overheard—“gone and
froze solid! Half the kids in the villagere there, right now. Ace doss or what?”
“Jason!” Mum appeared from the kitchen. “Youre letting the cold in!
Either invite Dean inside—hello Dean—or shut the door.”
“Um . . . just going out for a bit, Mum.”
“Um . . . where?”
“Just for some healthy fresh air.”
That was a strategic mistake. “What are you up to?”
I wanted to say “Nothing” but Hangman decided not to let me. “Why
would I be up to anything?” I avoided her stare as I put on my navy duffel
“Whats your new black parka done to offend you, may I ask?”
I still couldnt say “Nothing.” (Truth is, black means you fancy yourself as
a hard-knock. Adults cant be expected to understand.) “My duffels a bit
warmer, thats all. Its parky out.”
“Lunch is one oclock sharp.” Mum went back to changing the Hoover
bag. “Dads coming home to eat. Put on a woolly hat or your headll freeze.”
Woolly hatsre gay but I could stuff it in my pocket later.
“Good-bye then, Mrs. Taylor,” said Moron.
“Good-bye, Dean,” said Mum.
Mums never liked Moron.
Morons my height and hes okay but Jesus he pongs of gravy. Moron wears
ankle-flappers from charity shops and lives down Druggers End in a brick cottage
that pongs of gravy too. His real names Dean Moran (rhymes with “warren”)
but our P.E. teacher Mr. Carver started calling him “Moron” in our first
week and its stuck. I call him “Dean” if were on our own but names arent
just names. Kids whore really popular get called by their first names, so Nick
Yews always just “Nick.” Kids whore a bit popular like Gilbert Swinyard have
sort of respectful nicknames like “Yardy.” Next down are kids like me who call
each other by our surnames. Below us are kids with piss-take nicknames like
Moran Moron or Nicholas Briar, whos Knickerless Bra. Its all ranks, being a
boy, like the army. If I called Gilbert Swinyard just “Swinyard,” hed kick my
face in. Or if I called Moron “Dean” in front of everyone, itd damage my
own standing. So youve got to watch out.
Girls dont do this so much, cept for Dawn Madden, whos a boy gone
wrong in some experiment. Girls dont scrap so much as boys either. (That said,
just before school broke up for Christmas, Dawn Madden and Andrea Bozard
started yelling “Bitch!” and “Slag!” in the bus queues after school. Punching
tits and pulling hair and everything, they were.) Wish Id been born a girl,
sometimes. Theyre generally loads more civilized. But if I ever admitted that
out loud Id get bumhole plummer scrawled on my locker. That happened to
Floyd Chaceley for admitting he liked Johann Sebastian Bach. Mind you, if
they knew Eliot Bolivar, who gets poems published in Black Swan Green Parish
Magazine, was me, theyd gouge me to death behind the tennis courts with
blunt woodwork tools and spray the Sex Pistols logo on my gravestone.
So anyway, as Moron and I walked to the lake he told me about the
Scalectrix hed got for Christmas. On Boxing Day its transformer blew up and
nearly wiped out his entire family. “Yeah, sure,” I said. But Moron swore it on
his nans grave. So I told him he should write to Thats Life on BBC and get
Esther Rantzen to make the manufacturer pay compensation. Moron
thought that might be difficult cause his dadd bought it off a Brummie at
Tewkesbury Market on Christmas Eve. I didnt dare ask what a “Brummie”
was in case its the same as “bummer” or “bumboy,” which means homo.
“Yeah,” I said, “see what you mean.” Moron asked me what Id got for Christmas.
Id actually got £13.50 in book tokens and a poster of Middle-earth, but
booksre gay so I talked about the Game of Life, which Id got from Uncle
Brian and Aunt Alice. Its a board game you win by getting your little car to
the end of the road of life first, and with the most money. We crossed the
crossroads by the Black Swan and went into the woods. Wished Id rubbed
ointment into my lips cause they get chapped when its this cold.
Soon we heard kids through the trees, shouting and screaming. “Last one
to the lakes a spaz!” yelled Moron, haring off before I was ready. Straight off
he tripped over a frozen tire rut, went flying, and landed on his arse. Trust
Moran. “I think I mightve got a concussion,” he said.
“Concussions if you hit your head. Unless your brains up your arse.”
What a line. Pity nobody who matters was around to hear it.
The lake in the woods was epic. Tiny bubbles were trapped in the ice like in
Foxs Glacier Mints. Neal Brose had proper Olympic ice skates he hired out
for 5p a go, though Pete Redmarley was allowed to use them for free so other
kidsd see him speed-skating around and want a go too. Just staying up on the
ice is hard enough. I fell over loads before I got the knack of sliding in my
trainers. Ross Wilcox turned up with his cousin Gary Drake and Dawn Mad-
den. All threere pretty good skaters. Drake and Wilcoxre taller than me too
now. (Theyd cut the fingers off of their gloves to show the scars theyd got
playing Scabby Queen. Mumd murder me.) Squelch sat on the humpy island
in the middle of the lake where the ducks normally live, shouting, “Arse
over tit! Arse over tit!” at whoever fell over. Squelchs funny in the head cause
he was born too early, so nobody ever thumps him one. Not hard, anyway.
Grant Burch rode his servant Philip Phelpss Raleigh Chopper actually on
the ice. He kept his balance for a few seconds, but when he pulled a wheelie
the bike went flying. After it landed it looked like Uri Gellerd tortured it to
death. Phelps grinned sickly. Bet he was wondering what hed tell his dad.
Then Pete Redmarley and Grant Burch decided the frozen laked be perfect
for British Bulldogs. Nick Yew said, “Okay, Im on for that,” so it was decided.
I hate British Bulldogs. When Miss Throckmorton banned it at our primary
school after Lee Biggs lost three teeth playing it, I was dead relieved. But this
morning any kid who denied loving British Bulldogsdve looked a total
ponce. Specially kids from up Kingfisher Meadows like me.
About twenty or twenty-five of us boys, plus Dawn Madden, stood in a
bunch to be picked like slaves in a slave market. Grant Burch and Nick Yew
were joint captains of one team. Pete Redmarley and Gilbert Swinyard were
the captains of the other. Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake both got picked before
me by Pete Redmarley, but I got picked by Grant Burch on the sixth pass,
which wasnt embarrassingly late. Moron and Squelch were the last two left.
Grant Burch and Pete Redmarley joked, “No, you can have em both, we
want to win!” and Moron and Squelch had to laugh like they thought it was
funny too. Maybe Squelch really did. (Moron didnt. When everyone looked
away, he had the same face as that time after we all told him we were playing
Hide-and-Seek and sent him off to hide. It took an hour for him to work out
nobody was looking for him.) Nick Yew won the toss so us lot were the Runners
first and Pete Redmarleys team were the Bulldogs. Unimportant kids
coats were put at either end of the lake as goalmouths to reach through and
to defend. Girls, apart from Dawn Madden, and the littluns were cleared off
the ice. Redmarleys Bulldogs formed a pack in the middle and us Runners
slid to our starting goal. My heart was drumming now. Bulldogs and Runners
crouched like sprinters. The captains led the chant.
“British Bulldogs! One two three!”
Screaming like kamikazes, we charged. I slipped over (accidentally on purpose)
just before the front wave of Runners smashed into the Bulldogs. Thisd
tie up most of the hardest Bulldogs in fights with our front Runners. (Bulldogs
have to pin down both shoulders of Runners onto the ice for long
enough to shout “British Bulldogs one two three.”) With luck, my strategyd
clear some spaces to dodge through and on to our home goalposts. My plan
worked pretty well at first. The Tookey brothers and Gary Drake all crashed
into Nick Yew. A flying leg kicked my shin but I got past them without coming
a cropper. But then Ross Wilcox came homing in on me. I tried to wriggle
past but Wilcox got a firm grip on my wrist and tried to pull me down. But
instead of trying to struggle free I got a firmer grip on his wrist and flung him
off me, straight into Ant Little and Darren Croome. Ace in the face or what?
Games and sports arent about taking part or even about winning. Games and
sportsre really about humiliating your enemies. Lee Biggs tried a poxy rugby
tackle on me but I shook him free no sweat. Hes too worried about the teeth
hes got left to be a decent Bulldog. I was the fourth Runner home. Grant
Burch shouted, “Nice work Jacey-boy!” Nick Yewd fought free of the Tookeys
and Gary Drake and got home too. About a third of the Runners got captured
and turned into Bulldogs for the next pass. I hate that about British Bulldogs.
It forces you to be a traitor.
So anyway, we all chanted, “British Bulldogs one two THREE!” and
charged like last time but this time I had no chance. Ross Wilcox and Gary
Drake and Dawn Madden targeted me from the start. No matter how I tried
to dodge through the fray it was hopeless. I hadnt got halfway across the lake
before they got me. Ross Wilcox went for my legs, Gary Drake toppled me,
and Dawn Madden sat on my chest and pinned my shoulders down with her
knees. I just lay there and let them convert me into a Bulldog. In my heart Id
always be a Runner. Gary Drake gave me a dead leg, which might or might
notve been on purpose. Dawn Maddens got cruel eyes like a Chinese empress
and sometimes one glimpse at school makes me think about her all day.
Ross Wilcox jumped up and punched the air like hed scored at Old Trafford.
The spazzo. “Yeah, yeah, Wilcox,” I said, “three against one, well done.”
Wilcox flashed me a V-sign and slid off for another battle. Grant Burch and
Nick Yew came windmilling at a thick pocket of Bulldogs and half of them
Then Gilbert Swinyard yelled at the top of his lungs, “PIIIIIILEONNNNNN!”
That was the signal for every Runner and every Bulldog on
the lake to throw themselves onto a wriggling, groaning, growing pyramid of
kids. The game itself was sort of forgotten. I held back, pretending to limp a
bit from my dead leg. Then we heard the sound of a chain saw in the woods,
flying down the track, straight toward us.
The chain saw wasnt a chain saw. It was Tom Yew on his purple Suzuki
150cc scrambler. Pluto Noak was clinging to the back, without a helmet.
British Bulldogs was aborted cause Tom Yews a minor legend in Black
Swan Green. Tom Yew serves in the Royal Navy on a frigate called HMS
Coventry. Tom Yews got every Led Zep album ever made and can play the
guitar introduction to “Stairway to Heaven.” Tom Yews actually shaken
hands with Peter Shilton, the England goalkeeper. Pluto Noaks a less shiny
legend. He left school without even taking his CSEs last year. Now he
works in the Pork Scratchings factory in Upton-on-Severn. (Theres rumors
Pluto Noaks smoked cannabis but obviously it wasnt the type that cauliflowerizes
your brain and makes you jump off roofs onto railings.) Tom Yew
parked his Suzuki by the bench on the narrow end of the lake and sat on it,
sidesaddle. Pluto Noak thumped his back to say thanks and went to speak to
Collette Bozard, who, according to Morons sister Kelly, hes had sexual intercourse
with. The older kids sat on the bench facing him, like Jesuss disciples,
and passed round fags. (Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake smoke now.
Worse still, Ross Wilcox asked Tom Yew something about Suzuki silencers
and Tom Yew answered him like Ross Wilcox was eighteen too.) Grant
Burch told his servant Phelps to run and get him a peanut Yorkie and a can
of Top Deck from Rhydds Shop, yelling after him, “Run, I told yer!” to impress
Tom Yew. Us middle-rank kids sat round the bench on the frosty
ground. The older kids started talking about the best things on TV over
Christmas and New Years. Tom Yew started saying hed seen The Great Escape
and everyone agreed everything elsed been crap compared to The
Great Escape, specially the bit where Steve McQueen gets caught by Nazis
on the barbed wire. But then Tom Yew said he thought itd gone on a bit
long and everyone agreed that though the film was classic itd dragged on
for ages. (I didnt see it cause Mum and Dad watched the Two Ronnies
Christmas special. But I paid close attention so I can pretend tove watched
it when school starts next Monday.)
The talkd shifted, for some reason, to the worst way to die.
“Gettin bit by a green mamba,” Gilbert Swinyard reckoned. “Deadliest
snake in the world. Yer organs burst so yer piss mixes with yer blood. Agony.”
“Agony, sure,” sniffed Grant Burch, “but youre dead pretty quick. Havin
yer skin unpeeled off yer like a sock, thats worse. Apache Indians do that to
yer. The best ones can make it last the whole night.”
Pete Redmarley said hed heard of this Vietcong execution. “They strips
yer, ties yer up, then rams Philadelphia cheese up yer jax. Then they locks yer
in a coffin with a pipe goin in. Then they send starving rats down the pipe.
The rats eat through the cheese, then carry on chewin, into you.”
Everyone looked at Tom Yew for the answer. “I get this dream.” He took a
drag on his cigarette that lasted an age. “Im with the last bunch of survivors,
after an atomic war. Were walking up a motorway. No cars, just weeds. Every
time I look behind me, therere fewer of us. One by one, you see, the radiations
getting them.” He glanced at his brother Nick, then over the frozen
lake. “Its not that Ill die that bothers me. Its that Ill be the last one.”
Nobody said a lot for a bit.
Ross Wilcox swiveled our way. He took a drag on his cigarette that lasted
an age, the poser. “If it wasnt for Winston Churchill you lotd all be speakin
Sure, like Ross Wilcox wouldve evaded capture and headed a resistance
cell. I was dying to tell that prat that actually, if the Japanese hadnt bombed
Pearl Harbor, Americad neverve come into the war, Britaindve been
starved into surrender, and Winston Churchilldve been executed as a war
criminal. But I knew I couldnt. There were swarms of stammer-words in
there, and Hangmans bloody merciless this January. So I said I was busting
for a waz, stood up, and went down the path to the village a bit. Gary Drake
shouted, “Hey, Taylor! Shake your dong more than twice, youre playing with
it!,” which got fat laughs from Neal Brose and Ross Wilcox. I flashed them a
V-sign over my shoulder. That stuff about shaking your dongs a craze at the
moment. Theres no one I can trust to ask what it means.
Treesre always a relief, after people. Gary Drake and Ross Wilcox mightve
been slagging me off, but the fainter the voices became, the less I wanted to go
back. I loathed myself for not putting Ross Wilcox in his place about speaking
German, but itdve been death tove started stammering back there. The
cladding of frost on thorny branches was thawing and fat drops drip-dripdripping.
It soothed me, a bit. In little pits where the sun couldnt reach there
was still some gravelly snow left, but not enough to make a snowball. (Nero
used to kill his guests by making them eat glass food, just for a laugh.) A robin,
I saw, a woodpecker, a magpie, a blackbird, and far off I think I heard a
nightingale, though Im not sure you get them in January. Then, where the
faint path from the House in the Woods meets the main path to the lake, I
heard a boy, gasping for breath, pounding this way. Between a pair of wishbone
pines I squeezed myself out of sight. Phelps dashed by, clutching his
masters peanut Yorkie and a can of Tizer. (Rhydds must be out of Top Deck.)
Behind the pines a possible path led up the slant. I know all the paths in this
part of the woods, I thought. But not this one. Pete Redmarley and Grant
Burchd start up British Bulldogs again when Tom Yew left. That wasnt much
of a reason to go back. Just to see where the path might go, I followed it.
Theres only one house in the woods so thats what we call it, the House in the
Woods. An old woman was sposed to live there, but I didnt know her name
and Id never seen her. The houses got four windows and a chimney, same as
a little kids drawing of a house. A brick wall as high as me surrounds it and
wild bushes grow higher. Our war games in the woods steered clear of the
building. Not cause therere any ghost stories about it or anything. Its just
that part of the woods isnt good.
But this morning the house looked so hunkered down and locked up, I
doubted anyone was still living there. Plus, my bladder was about to split, and
that makes you less cautious. So I peed up against the frosted wall. Id just finished
signing my autograph in steamy yellow when a rusty gate opened up
with a tiny shriek and there stood a sour aunt from black-and-white times. Just
standing there, staring at me.
My pee ran dry.
“God! Sorry!” I zipped up my fly, expecting an utter bollocking. Mumd
flay alive any kid she found pissing against our fence, then feed his body to
the compost bin. Including me. “I didnt know anyone was living . . . here.”
The sour aunt carried on looking at me.
Pee dribbles blotted my underpants.
“My brother and I were born in this house,” she said, finally. Her throat
was saggy like a lizards. “We have no intention of moving away.”
“Oh . . .” I still wasnt sure if she was about to open fire on me. “Good.”
“How noisy you youngsters are!”
“It was very careless of you to wake my brother.”
My mouthd glued up. “It wasnt me making all the noise. Honestly.”
“There are days”—the sour aunt never blinked—“when my brother loves
youngsters. But on days like these, my oh my, you give him the furies.”
“Like I said, Im sorry.”
“Youll be sorrier,” she said, looking disgusted, “if my brother gets a hold
Quiet things were too loud and loud things couldnt be heard.
“Is he . . . uh, around? Now? Your brother, I mean?”
“His rooms just as he left it.”
“Is he ill?”
She acted like she hadnt heard me.
“Ive got to go home now.”
“Youll be sorrier”—she did that spitty chomp old people do to not dribble—“
when the ice cracks.”
“The ice? On the lake? Its as solid as anything.”
“You always say so. Ralph Bredon said so.”
“Ralph Bredon. The butchers boy.”
It didnt feel at all right. “Ive got to go home now.”
Lunch at 9 Kingfisher Meadows, Black Swan Green, Worcestershire, was
Findus hamncheese Crispy Pancakes, crinkle-cut oven chips, and sprouts.
Sprouts taste of fresh puke but Mum said I had to eat five without making a
song and dance about it, or thered be no butterscotch Angel Delight for pudding.
Mum says she wont let the dining table be used as a venue for “adolescent
discontent.” Before Christmas I asked what not liking the taste of sprouts
has to do with “adolescent discontent.” Mum warned me to stop being a
Clever Little Schoolboy. I shouldve shut up but I pointed out that Dad never
makes her eat melon (which she hates) and Mum never makes Dad eat garlic
(which he hates). She went ape and sent me to my room. When Dad got
back I got a lecture about arrogance.
No pocket money that week, either.
So anyway, this lunchtime I cut my sprouts up into tiny pieces and glolloped
tomato ketchup over them. “Dad?”
“If you drown, what happens to your body?”
Julia rolled her eyes like Jesus on his cross.
“Bit of a morbid topic for the dinner table.” Dad chewed his forkful of
crispy pancake. “Why do you ask?”
It was best not to mention the frozen-up pond. “Well, in this book Arctic
Adventure these two brothers Hal and Roger Huntre being chased by a baddie
called Kaggs who falls into the—”
Dad held up his hand to say Enough! “Well, in my opinion, Mr. Kaggs
gets eaten by fish. Picked clean.”
“Do they have piranhas in the Arctic?”
“Fishll eat anything once its soft enough. Mind you, if he fell into the
Thames, his bodyd wash up before long. The Thames always gives up its
dead, the Thames does.”
My misdirection was complete. “How about if he fell through ice, into a
lake, say? Whatd happen to him then? Would he sort of stay . . . deep
“Thing,” Julia mewled, “is being grotesque while were eating, Mum.”
Mum rolled up her napkin. “Lorenzo Hussingtrees has a new range of
tiles in, Michael.” (My abortion of a sister flashed me a victorious grin.)
“I thought we could drop by Lorenzo Hussingtrees showroom on our way
to Worcester. New tiles. Theyre exquisite.”
“No doubt Lorenzo Hussingtree charges exquisite prices, to match?”
“Were having workmen in anyway, so why not make a proper job of it?
The kitchens getting embarrassing.”
Julia sees arguments coming even before Mum and Dad sometimes.
“Can I get down now?”
“Darling.” Mum looked really hurt. “Its butterscotch Angel Delight.”
“Yummy, but could I have mine tonight? Got to get back to Robert Peel
and the Enlightened Whigs. Anyway, Thing has ruined my appetite.”
“Pigging on Cadburys Roses with Kate Alfrick,” I counterattacked, “is
whats ruined your appetite.”
“So where did the Terrys Chocolate Orange go, Thing?”
“Julia,” Mum sighed, “I do wish you wouldnt call Jason that. Youve only
got one brother.”
Julia said, “One too many” and got up.
Dad remembered something. “Have either of you been into my office?”
“Not me, Dad.” Julia hovered in the doorway, scenting blood. “Mustve
been my honest, charming, obedient, younger sibling.”
How did he know?
“Its a simple enough question.” Dad had hard evidence. The only adult I
know who bluffs kids is Mr. Nixon, our headmaster.
The pencil! When Dean Moran rang the doorbell I mustve left the pencil
in the sharpener. Damn Moron. “Your phone was ringing for yonks, like,
four or five minutes, honestly, so—”
Dad didnt care. “Whats the rule about not going into my office?”
“But I thought it might be an emergency so I picked it up and there
was”—Hangman blocked “someone”—“a person on the other end but—”
“I believe”—now Dads palm said HALT!—“I just asked you a question.”
“What question did I just ask you?”
“ ‘Whats the rule about not going into my office? ”
“So I did.” Dads a pair of scissors at times. Snip snip snip snip. “Now, why
dont you answer this question?”
Then Julia did a strange move. “Thats funny.”
“I dont see anyone laughing.”
“No, Dad, on Boxing Day when you and Mum took Thing to Worcester,
the phone in your office went. Honestly, it went on for aeons. I couldnt concentrate
on my revision. The more I told myself it wasnt a desperate ambulanceman
or something, the likelier it seemed it was. In the end it was driving
me crazy. I had no choice. I said ‘Hello but the person on the other end
didnt say anything. So I hung up, in case it was a pervert.”
Dadd gone quiet but the danger wasnt past.
“That was just like me,” I ventured. “But I didnt hang up straightaway
cause I thought maybe they couldnt hear me. Was there a baby in the background,
“Okay, you two, enough of the private-eye biz. If some joker is making
nuisance calls then I dont want either of you answering, no matter what. If it
happens again, just unplug the socket. Understand?”
Mum was just sitting there. It didnt feel at all right.
Dads “DID YOU HEAR ME?” was like a brick through a window. Julia
and me jumped. “Yes Dad.”
Mum, me, and Dad ate our butterscotch Angel Delight without a word. I
didnt dare even look at my parents. I couldnt ask to get down early too cause
Juliad already used that card. Why I was in the doghouse was clear enough,
but God knows why Mum and Dad were giving each other the silent treatment.
After the last spoonful of Angel Delight Dad said, “Lovely, Helena,
thank you. Jason and Ill do the washing up, wont we, Jason?”
Mum just made this nothing-sound and went upstairs.
Dad washed up, humming a nothing-song. I put the dirty dishes in the
hatch, then went into the kitchen to dry. I shouldve just shut up, but I
thought I could make the day turn safely normal if I just said the right thing.
“Do you get”—Hangman loves giving me grief over this word—“nightingales
in January, Dad? I mightve heard one this morning. In the woods.”
Dad was Brillo-padding a pan. “How should I know?”
I pushed on. Usually Dad likes talking about nature and stuff. “But that
bird at granddads hospice. You said it was a nightingale.”
“Huh. Fancy you remembering that.” Dad stared over the back lawn at
the icicles on the summerhouse. Then this noise came out of Dad like hed
entered the Worlds Miserablest Man of 1982 Competition. “Just concentrate
on those glasses, Jason, before you drop one.” He switched on Radio 2 for the
weather forecast, then began cutting up the 1981 Highway Code with scissors.
Dad bought the updated 1982 Highway Code the day it came out, and
he says old ones could cause accidents if theyre not destroyed. Tonight most
of the British Isles will see temperatures plunging well below zero. Motorists
in Scotland and the North should be careful of black ice on the roads, and
the Midlands should anticipate widespread patches of freezing fog.
Up in my room I played the Game of Life, but being two players at once is no
fun. Julias friend Kate Alfrick called for Julia to study together. But they were
just gossiping about whos going out with who in the sixth form, and playing
Police singles. My billion problems kept bobbing up like corpses in a flooded
city. Mum and Dad at lunch. Hangman colonizing the alphabet. At this rate
Im going to have to learn sign language. Gary Drake and Ross Wilcox.
Theyve never exactly been my best mates but today theyd ganged up against
me. Neal Brose was in on it too. Last, the sour aunt in the woods worried me.
Wished there was a crack to slip through and leave all this stuff behind.
Next week Im thirteen but thirteen looks way worse than twelve. Julia moans
nonstop about being eighteen but eighteens epic, from where Im standing.
No official bedtime, twice my pocket money, and for Julias eighteenth she
went to Tanyas Night Club in Worcester with her thousand and one friends.
Tanyass got the only xenon disco laser light in Europe! How ace is that?
Dad drove off up Kingfisher Meadows, alone.
Mum must still be in her room. Shes there more and more recently.
To cheer myself up I put on my granddads Omega. Dad called me into
his office on Boxing Day and said he had something very important to give
me, from my grandfather. Dadd been keeping it till I was mature enough to
look after it myself. It was a watch. An Omega Seamaster De Ville. Granddad
bought it off a real live Arab in a port called Aden in 1949. Adens in Arabia
and once it was British. Hed worn it every day of his life, even the moment
he died. That fact makes the Omega more special, not scary. The Omegas
face is silver and wide as a 50p but as thin as a tiddlywink. “A sign of an excellent
watch,” Dad said, grave as grave, “is its thinness. Not like these plastic
tubs teenagers strap to their wrist these days to strut about in.”
Where I hid my Omega is a work of genius and second in security only to
my Oxo tin under the loose floorboard. Using a Stanley knife I hollowed out
a crappy-looking book called Woodcraft for Boys. Woodcraft for Boyss on my
shelf between real books. Julia often snoops in my room, but shes never discovered
this hiding place. Id know cause I keep a 1⁄2p coin balanced on it at
the back. Plus, if Juliad found it shedve copied my ace idea for sure. Ive
checked her bookshelf for false spines and there arent any.
Outside I heard an unfamiliar car. A sky-blue VW Jetta was crawling
along the curb, as if its driver was searching for a house number. At the end
of our cul-de-sac the driver, a woman, did a three-point turn, stalled once,
and drove off up Kingfisher Meadows. I shouldve memorized the number
plate in case its on Police 999.
Granddad was the last grandparent to die, and the only one I have any
memories of. Not many. Chalking roads for my Corgi cars down his garden
path. Watching Thunderbirds at his bungalow in Grange-over-Sands and
drinking pop called Dandelion and Burdock.
I wound the stopped Omega up and set the time to a fraction after three.
Unborn Twin murmured, Go to the lake.
The stump of an elm guards a bottleneck in the path through the woods. Sitting
on the stump was Squelch. Squelchs real names Mervyn Hill but one
time when we were changing for P.E., he pulled down his trousers and we
saw he had a nappy on. About nine, hedve been. Grant Burch started the
Squelch nickname and its been years since anyones called him Mervyn. Its
easier to change your eyeballs than to change your nickname.
So anyway, Squelch was stroking something furry and moon gray in the
crook of his elbow. “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”
“All right, Squelch. What you got there, then?”
Squelchs got stained teeth. “Aint showin!”
“Go on. You can show us.”
Squelch mumbled, “Kit Kat.”
“A Kit Kat? A chocolate bar?”
Squelch showed me the head of a sleeping kitten. “Kitty cat! Finders
keepers, losers weepers.”
“Wow. A cat. Whered you find her?”
“By the lake. Crack o dawn, bfore anyone else got to the lake. I hided her
while we did British Bulldogs. Hided her in a box.”
“Why didnt you show it to anyone?”
“Burch and Swinyard and Redmarley and them bastardsdve tooked her
aways why! Finders keepers, losers weepers. I hided her. Now I come back.”
You never know with Squelch. “Shes quiet, isnt she?”
Squelch just petted her.
“Could I hold her, Merv?”
“If you dont breathe a word to no one”—Squelch eyed me dubiously—
“you can stroke her. But take them gloves off. Theyre nobbly.”
So I took off my goalie gloves and reached out to touch the kitten.
Squelch lobbed the kitten at me. “Its yours now!”
Taken by surprise, I caught the kitten.
“Yours!” Squelch ran off laughing back to the village. “Yours!”
The kitten was cold and stiff as a pack of meat from the fridge. Only now
did I realize it was dead. I dropped it. It thudded.
“Finders,” Squelch called, his voice dying off, “keepers!”
Using two sticks, I lifted the kitten into a clump of nervy snowdrops.
So still, so dignified. Died in the frost last night, I spose.
Dead things show you what youll be too one day.
Nobodyd be out on the frozen lake, Id suspected, and there wasnt a soul.
Superman II was on TV. Id seen it at Malvern Cinema about two years ago
on Neal Broses birthday. It wasnt bad but not worth sacrificing my own private
frozen lake for. Clark Kent gives up his powers just to have sexual intercourse
with Lois Lane in a glittery bed. Whod make such a stupid swap? If
you could fly? Deflect nuclear missiles into space? Turn back time by spinning
the planet in reverse? Sexual intercourse cant be that good.
I sat on the empty bench to eat a slab of Jamaican Ginger Cake, then went
out on the ice. Without other kids watching, I didnt fall once. Round and
around in swoopy anticlockwise loops I looped, a stone on the end of a string.
Overhanging trees tried to touch my head with their fingers. Rooks craw . . .
craw . . . crawed, like old people whove forgotten why theyve come upstairs.
A sort of trance.
The afternoond gone and the sky was turning to outer space when I noticed
another kid on the lake. This boy skated at my speed and followed my orbit,
but always stayed on the far side of the lake. So if I was at twelve oclock, he
was at six. When I got to eleven, he was at five, and so on, always across from
me. My first thought was he was a kid from the village, just mucking about. I
even thought he might be Nick Yew cause he was sort of stocky. But the
strange thing was, if I looked at this kid directly for more than a moment, dark
spaces sort of swallowed him up. The first couple of times I thought hed gone
home. But after another half loop of the lake, hed be back. Just at the edge of
my vision. Once I skated across the lake to intercept him, but he vanished before
I got to the island in the middle. When I carried on orbiting the pond, he
Go home, urged the nervy Maggot in me. What if hes a ghost?
My Unborn Twin cant stand Maggot. What if he is a ghost?
“Nick?” I called out. My voice sounded indoors. “Nick Yew?”
The kid carried on skating.
I called out, “Ralph Bredon?”
His answer took a whole orbit to reach me.
If a doctord told me the kid across the lake was my imagination, and that
his voice was only words I thought, I wouldntve argued. If Juliad told me I
was convincing myself Ralph Bredon was there to make myself feel more special
than I am, I wouldntve argued. If a mysticd told me that one exact moment
in one exact place can act as an antenna that picks up faint traces of lost
people, I wouldntve argued.
“Whats it like?” I called out. “Isnt it cold?”
The answer took another orbit to reach me.
You get used to the cold.
Do the kids whod drowned in the lake down the years mind me trespassing
on their roof? Do they want new kids to fall through? For company? Do
they envy the living? Even me?
I called out, “Can you show me? Show me what its like?”
The moond swum into the lake of night.
We skated one orbit.
The shadow-kid was still there, crouching as he skated, just like I was.
We skated another orbit.
An owl or something fluttered low across the lake.
“Hey?” I called out. “Did you hear me? I want to know what its—”
The ice shrucked me off my feet. For a helterskeltery moment I was in
midair at an unlikely height. Bruce Lee doing a karate kick, that high. I knew
it wasnt going to be a soft landing but I hadnt guessed how painful a slam itd
be. The crack shattered from my ankle to my jaw to my knuckles, like an ice
cube plopped into warm squash. No, bigger than an ice cube. A mirror,
dropped from Skylab height. Where it hit the earth, where it smashed into
daggers and thorns and invisible splinters, thats my ankle.
I spun and slid to a shuddery stop by the edge of the lake.
For a bit, all I could do was lie there, basking in that supernatural pain.
Even Giant Haystacksdve whimpered. “Bloody bugger,” I gasped to plug my
tears. “Bloody bloody bloody bugger!” Through the flinty trees I could just
hear the sound of the main road but there was no way I could walk that far. I
tried to stand but just fell on my arse, wincing with fresh pain. I couldnt
move. Id die of pneumonia if I stayed where I was. I had no idea what to do.
“You,” sighed the sour aunt. “We suspected youd come knocking again
“I hurt”—my voiced gone all bendy—“I hurt my ankle.”
“So I see.”
“Its killing me.”
“Can I just phone my dad to come and get me?”
“We dont care for telephones.”
“Could you go and get help? Please?”
“We dont ever leave our house. Not at night. Not here.”
“Please.” The underwatery pain shook as loud as electric guitars. “I cant
“I know about bones and joints. Youd best come inside.”
Inside was colder than outside. Bolts behind me slid home and a lock
turned. “Down you go,” the sour aunt said, “down to the parlor. Ill be right
along, once Ive prepared your cure. But whatever you do, be quiet. Youll be
very sorry if you wake my brother.”
“All right . . .” I glanced away. “Which ways your parlor?”
But the darkd shuffled itself and the sour auntd gone.
Way down the hallway was a blade of muddy light, so that was the direction
I limped. God knows how I walked up the rooty, twisty path from the
frozen lake on that busted ankle. But I mustve done, tove got here. I passed
a ladder of stairs. Enough muffled moonlight fell down it for me to make out
an old photograph hanging on the wall. A submarine in an arctic-looking
port. The crew stood on deck, all saluting. I walked on. The blade of light
wasnt getting any nearer.
The parlor was a bit bigger than a big wardrobe and stuffed with museumy
stuff. An empty parrot cage, a mangle, a towering dresser, a scythe. Junk, too.
A bent bicycle wheel and one soccer boot, caked in silt. A pair of ancient
skates, hanging on a coat stand. There was nothing modern. No fire. Nothing
electrical apart from a bare brown bulb. Hairy plants sent bleached roots out
of tiny pots. God it was cold! The sofa sagged under me and sssssssssed. One
other doorway was screened by beads on strings. I tried to find a position
where my ankle hurt less but there wasnt one.
Time went by, I suppose.
The sour aunt held a china bowl in one hand and a cloudy glass in the
other. “Take off your sock.”
My ankle was balloony and limp. The sour aunt propped my calf on a
footstool and knelt by it. Her dress rustled. Apart from the blood in my ears
and my jagged breathing there was no other sound. Then she dipped her
hand into the bowl and began smearing a bready goo onto my ankle.
My ankle shuddered.
“This is a poultice.” She gripped my shin. “To draw out the swelling.”
The poultice sort of tickled but the pain was too vicious and I was fighting
the cold too hard. The sour aunt smeared the goo on till it was used up
and my ankled completely clagged. She handed me the cloudy glass. “Drink
“It smells like . . . marzipan.”
“Its for drinking. Not smelling.”
“But what is it?”
“Itll help take the pain away.”
Her face told me I had no real choice. I swigged back the liquid in one go
like you do milk of magnesia. It was syrupy-thick but didnt taste of much. I
asked, “Is your brother asleep upstairs?”
“Where else would he be, Ralph? Shush now.”
“My names not Ralph,” I told her, but she acted like she hadnt heard.
Clearing up the misunderstandingdve been a massive effort, and now Id
stopped moving. I just couldnt fight the cold anymore. Funny thing was, as
soon as I gave in, a lovely drowsiness tugged me downward. I pictured Mum,
Dad, and Julia sitting at home watching The Paul Daniels Magic Show but
their faces melted away, like reflections on the backs of spoons.
The cold poked me awake. I didnt know where or who or when I was. My
ears felt bitten and I could see my breath. A china bowl sat on a footstool and
my ankle was crusted in something hard and spongy. Then I remembered
everything, and sat up. The pain in my foot had gone but my head didnt feel
right, like a crowd flown in and couldnt get out. I wiped the poultice off my
foot with a snotty hanky. Unbelievably at first, my ankle swiveled fine, cured,
like magic. I pulled on my sock and trainer, stood up, and tested my weight.
There was a faint twinge, but only cause I was looking for it. Through the
beaded doorway I called out, “Hello?”
No answer came. I passed through the crackly beads into a tiny kitchen
with a stone sink and a massive oven. Big enough for a kid to climb in. Its
doord been left open, but inside was dark as that cracked tomb under Saint
Gabriels. I wanted to thank the sour aunt for curing my ankle.
Make sure the back door opens, warned Unborn Twin.
It didnt. Neither did the frost-flowered sash window. Its catch and
hingesd been painted over long ago and itd take a chisel to persuade it open,
at least. I wondered what the time was and squinted at my granddads Omega
but it was too dark in the tiny kitchen to see. Suppose it was late evening? Id
get back and my tead be waiting under a Pyrex dish. Mum and Dad go ape if
Im not back in time for tea. Or spose itd gone midnight? Spose the policed
been alerted? Jesus. Or what if Id slept right through one short day and into
the night of the next? The Malvern Gazetteer and Midlands Todaydve already
shown my school photo and sent out appeals for witnesses. Jesus.
Squelch wouldve reported seeing me heading to the frozen lake. Frogmen
might be searching for me there, right now.
This was a bad dream.
No, worse than that. Back in the parlor, I looked at my grandfathers
Omega and saw that there was no time. My voice whimpered, “No.” The
glass face, the hour hand, and the minute handd gone and only a bent second
hand was left. When I fell on the ice, it mustve happened then. The casing
was split and half its innardsd spilt out.
Granddads Omegad never once gone wrong in four decades.
In less than a fortnight, Id killed it.
Wobbly with dread, I walked up the hallway and rasped up the twisted stairs,
“Hello?” Silent as night in an ice age. “I have to go!” Worry about the
Omegad swatted off worry about being in this house, but I still darednt shout
in case I woke the brother. “Ive got to go home now,” I called, a bit louder.
No reply. I decided to just leave by the front door. Id come back in the daytime
to thank her. The bolts slid open easily enough, but the old-style lock
was another matter. Without the key it wouldnt open. That was that. Id have
to go upstairs, wake the old biddy to get her key, and if she got annoyed that
was just tough titty. Something, something, had to be done about the catastrophe
of the smashed watch. God knows what, but I couldnt do it inside the
House in the Woods.
The stairs curved up steeper. Soon I had to use my hands to grip the stairs
above me, or Idve fallen back. How on earth the sour aunt went up and
down in that big rookish dress was anybodys guess. Finally, I hauled myself
onto a tiny landing with two doors. A slitty window let in a glimmer. One door
had to be the sour aunts room. The other had to be the brothers.
Lefts got a power that right hasnt, so I clasped the iron doorknob on the
left door. It sucked the warmth from my hand, my arm, my blood.
A deathwatch beetle? Rat in the loft? Pipe freezing up?
Which room was the scrit-scrat coming from?
The iron doorknob made a coiling creak as I turned it.
Powdery moonlight lit the attic room through the snowflake-lace curtain. Id
guessed right. The sour aunt lay under a quilt with her dentures in a jar by
her bed, still as a marble duchess on a church tomb. I shuffled over the tipsy
floor, nervous at the thought of waking her. What if she forgot who I was and
thought Id come to murder her and screamed for help and had a stroke? Her
hair spilt over her folded face like pondweed. A cloud of breath escaped her
mouth every ten or twenty heartbeats. Only that proved she was made of flesh
and blood like me.
“Can you hear me?”
No, Id have to shake her awake.
My hand was halfway to her shoulder when that scrit-scrat noise started
up again, deep inside her.
Not a snore. A death rattle.
Go into the other bedroom. Wake her brother. She needs an ambulance.
No. Smash your way out. Run to Isaac Pye in the Black Swan for help. No.
Theyd ask why youd been in the House in the Woods. Whatd you say? You
dont even know this womans name. Its too late. Shes dying, right now. Im
certain. The scrit-scrats uncoiling. Louder, waspier, daggerier.
Her windpipe bulges as her soul squeezes out of her heart.
Her worn-out eyes flip awake like a dolls, black, glassy, shocked.
From her black crack mouth, a blizzard rushes out.
A silent roaring hangs here.
Not going anywhere.
From the Hardcover edition.
"Mitchell who for my gelt is the best pure storyteller writing in English today not only makes [the coming-of-age story] fresh and astounding and new, he does it by going out of his way to touch all the familiar bases..." San Diego Union-Tribune
"[A] beautiful, stripped-down coming-of-age story....[Mitchell] reproduces Jason's inner life with such astonishing verisimilitude that readers will find themselves haunted by him long after turning the last page." Booklist (Starred Review)
"This book is so entertainingly strange, so packed with activity, adventures, and diverting banter, that you only realize as the extraordinary novel concludes that the timid boy has grown before your eyes into a capable young man. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly
"Here the virtuoso ventriloquism of multiple voices and settings focuses only on Jason and his surroundings but to heightened comic and dramatic effect. Recommended." Library Journal
"[B]rilliant....In Jason, Mitchell creates an evocative yet authentically adolescent voice, an achievement even more impressive than the ventriloquism of his earlier books." Nell Freudenberger, The New York Times Book Review
"There's so much to recommend this book....[T]he characters are wonderful sympathetic, funny, perfectly drawn....Thus far, this is my favorite novel of 2006, and I won't be surprised if it turns out to be the best book I read all year." Philadelphia Inquirer
"[A] genuinely pristine and personal work. Comparisons could be made to Roddy Doyle or Mark Haddon....But Mitchell has very much a voice of his own, and the child's poetry he brings to this novel is a pleasure to behold." San Francisco Chronicle
"[Mitchell] has a perfect ear for that most calamitous year, the first of the teens, when we come face-to-face with the volatile nature of life. There's plenty of sadness in that discovery, of course, but humor, too, and he spins them together subtly in this touching novel." The Washington Post
"A testament of [Mitchell's] seemingly bottomless talent....[Mitchell] succeeds in infusing a simple coming-of-age story with his own brand of creative flair, his trademark gorgeous language and his pitch-perfect dialogue....[P]owerful and beautifully rendered." Rocky Mountain News
A meditative novel of a young boy on the cusp of adulthood follows a single year in the life of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor as he grows up in what is for him the sleepiest village in Worcestershire, England, in 1982. By the aauthor of Cloud Atlas. Reprint. 75,000 first printing.