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Black Swan Green

A Novel

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
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By the New York Times bestselling author of The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas | Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

Selected by Time as One of the Ten Best Books of the Year | A New York Times Notable Book | Named One of the Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post Book World, The Christian Science Monitor, Rocky Mountain News, and Kirkus Reviews | A Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist | Winner of the ALA Alex Award | Finalist for the Costa Novel Award

From award-winning writer David Mitchell comes a sinewy, meditative novel of boyhood on the cusp of adulthood and the old on the cusp of the new.

Black Swan Green tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an exquisitely observed world that is anything but sleepy. A world of Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys’ games on a frozen lake; of “nightcreeping” through the summer backyards of strangers; of the tabloid-fueled thrills of the Falklands War and its human toll; of the cruel, luscious Dawn Madden and her power-hungry boyfriend, Ross Wilcox; of a certain Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, an elderly bohemian emigré who is both more and less than she appears; of Jason’s search to replace his dead grandfather’s irreplaceable smashed watch before the crime is discovered; of first cigarettes, first kisses, first Duran Duran LPs, and first deaths; of Margaret Thatcher’s recession; of Gypsies camping in the woods and the hysteria they inspire; and, even closer to home, of a slow-motion divorce in four seasons.

Pointed, funny, profound, left-field, elegiac, and painted with the stuff of life, Black Swan Green is David Mitchell’s subtlest and most effective achievement to date.

Praise for Black Swan Green

“[David Mitchell has created] one of the most endearing, smart, and funny young narrators ever to rise up from the pages of a novel. . . . The always fresh and brilliant writing will carry readers back to their own childhoods. . . . This enchanting novel makes us remember exactly what it was like.”The Boston Globe

“[David Mitchell is a] prodigiously daring and imaginative young writer. . . . As in the works of Thomas Pynchon and Herman Melville, one feels the roof of the narrative lifted off and oneself in thrall.”Time
Random House Publishing Group; April 2006
ISBN 9781588365286
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Black Swan Green
Author: David Mitchell

not set foot in my office. That’s Dad’s rule. But the phone’d rung twenty-five
times. Normal people give up after ten or eleven, unless it’s a matter of
life or death. Don’t they? Dad’s got an answering machine like James Garner’s
in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape. But he’s stopped leaving it
switched on recently. Thirty rings, the phone got to. Julia couldn’t hear it up
in her converted attic ’cause “Don’t You Want Me?” by Human League was
thumping out dead loud. Forty rings. Mum couldn’t hear ’cause the washing
machine was on berserk cycle and she was hoovering the living room. Fifty
rings. That’s just not normal. S’pose Dad’d 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 Bluebeard’s chamber after
being told not to. (Bluebeard, mind, was waiting for that to happen.) Dad’s office
smells of pound notes, papery but metallic too. The blinds were down so
it felt like evening, not ten in the morning. There’s a serious clock on the
wall, exactly the same make as the serious clocks on the walls at school.
There’s 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.) Dad’s IBM computer sits on the steel desk. Thousands
of pounds, IBMs cost. The office phone’s red like a nuclear hotline and
it’s 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 didn’t answer.
"Hello?” I said. “Hello?”
They breathed in like they’d cut themselves on paper.
“Can you hear me? I can’t hear you.”
Very faint, I recognized the Sesame Street music.
“If you can hear me”—I remembered a Children’s 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.
I’d heard it, so they’d heard me.

“May as well be hanged for a sheep as hanged for a handkerchief.” Miss
Throckmorton taught us that aeons ago. ’Cause I’d sort of had a reason to
have come into the forbidden chamber, I peered through Dad’s 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. Dad’s swivelly chair’s a lot like the Millennium
Falcon’s 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. I’d shoot the Soviet airmen with tranquilizer darts as
they pressed their ejector seats. Our marines’ll mop them up. I’d refuse all
medals. “Thanks, but no thanks,” I’d tell Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan
when Mum invited them in, “I was just doing my job.”
Dad’s got this fab pencil sharpener clamped to his desk. It makes pencils
sharp enough to puncture body armor. H pencils’re sharpest, they’re Dad’s
faves. I prefer 2Bs.
The doorbell went. I put the blind back to how it was, checked I’d 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 bumfluff’s getting thicker, mind. “You’ll
never guess what!”
“You know the lake in the woods?”
“What about it?”
“It’s only”—Moron checked that we weren’t being overheard—“gone and
froze solid! Half the kids in the village’re there, right now. Ace doss or what?”
“Jason!” Mum appeared from the kitchen. “You’re 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
“What’s your new black parka done to offend you, may I ask?”
I still couldn’t say “Nothing.” (Truth is, black means you fancy yourself as
a hard-knock. Adults can’t be expected to understand.) “My duffel’s a bit
warmer, that’s all. It’s parky out.”
“Lunch is one o’clock sharp.” Mum went back to changing the Hoover
bag. “Dad’s coming home to eat. Put on a woolly hat or your head’ll freeze.”
Woolly hats’re gay but I could stuff it in my pocket later.
“Good-bye then, Mrs. Taylor,” said Moron.
“Good-bye, Dean,” said Mum.
Mum’s never liked Moron.

Moron’s my height and he’s 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 name’s Dean Moran (rhymes with “warren”)
but our P.E. teacher Mr. Carver started calling him “Moron” in our first
week and it’s stuck. I call him “Dean” if we’re on our own but name’s aren’t
just names. Kids who’re really popular get called by their first names, so Nick
Yew’s always just “Nick.” Kids who’re 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, who’s Knickerless Bra. It’s all ranks, being a
boy, like the army. If I called Gilbert Swinyard just “Swinyard,” he’d kick my
face in. Or if I called Moron “Dean” in front of everyone, it’d damage my
own standing. So you’ve got to watch out.
Girls don’t do this so much, ’cept for Dawn Madden, who’s a boy gone
wrong in some experiment. Girls don’t 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 I’d been born a girl,
sometimes. They’re generally loads more civilized. But if I ever admitted that
out loud I’d 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
was me, they’d 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 he’d 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 nan’s grave. So I told him he should write to That’s Life on BBC and get
Esther Rantzen to make the manufacturer pay compensation. Moron
thought that might be difficult ’cause his dad’d bought it off a Brummie at
Tewkesbury Market on Christmas Eve. I didn’t dare ask what a “Brummie”
was in case it’s the same as “bummer” or “bumboy,” which means homo.
“Yeah,” I said, “see what you mean.” Moron asked me what I’d got for Christmas.
I’d actually got £13.50 in book tokens and a poster of Middle-earth, but
books’re gay so I talked about the Game of Life, which I’d got from Uncle
Brian and Aunt Alice. It’s 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 I’d rubbed
ointment into my lips ’cause they get chapped when it’s this cold.
Soon we heard kids through the trees, shouting and screaming. “Last one
to the lake’s 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 might’ve got a concussion,” he said.
“Concussion’s if you hit your head. Unless your brain’s 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
Fox’s 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
kids’d 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 three’re pretty good skaters. Drake and Wilcox’re taller than me too
now. (They’d cut the fingers off of their gloves to show the scars they’d got
playing Scabby Queen. Mum’d 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. Squelch’s 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 Phelps’s 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 Geller’d tortured it to
death. Phelps grinned sickly. Bet he was wondering what he’d tell his dad.
Then Pete Redmarley and Grant Burch decided the frozen lake’d be perfect
for British Bulldogs. Nick Yew said, “Okay, I’m 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 Bulldogs’d’ve 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t. 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 Redmarley’s 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 littl’uns were cleared off
the ice. Redmarley’s 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. This’d
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 strategy’d
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 aren’t about taking part or even about winning. Games and
sports’re really about humiliating your enemies. Lee Biggs tried a poxy rugby
tackle on me but I shook him free no sweat. He’s too worried about the teeth
he’s got left to be a decent Bulldog. I was the fourth Runner home. Grant
Burch shouted, “Nice work Jacey-boy!” Nick Yew’d 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 hadn’t 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 I’d
always be a Runner. Gary Drake gave me a dead leg, which might or might
not’ve been on purpose. Dawn Madden’s 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 he’d 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
went flying.
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 wasn’t 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 Yew’s a minor legend in Black
Swan Green. Tom Yew serves in the Royal Navy on a frigate called HMS
Coventry. Tom Yew’s got every Led Zep album ever made and can play the
guitar introduction to “Stairway to Heaven.” Tom Yew’s actually shaken
hands with Peter Shilton, the England goalkeeper. Pluto Noak’s 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. (There’s rumors
Pluto Noak’s smoked cannabis but obviously it wasn’t 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 Moron’s sister Kelly, he’s had sexual intercourse
with. The older kids sat on the bench facing him, like Jesus’s 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 Rhydd’s 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 Year’s. Tom Yew started saying he’d seen The Great Escape
and everyone agreed everything else’d 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 it’d gone on a bit
long and everyone agreed that though the film was classic it’d dragged on
for ages. (I didn’t see it ’cause Mum and Dad watched the Two Ronnies
Christmas special. But I paid close attention so I can pretend to’ve watched
it when school starts next Monday.)
The talk’d 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 you’re dead pretty quick. Havin’
yer skin unpeeled off yer like a sock, that’s worse. Apache Indians do that to
yer. The best ones can make it last the whole night.”
Pete Redmarley said he’d 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. “I’m with the last bunch of survivors,
after an atomic war. We’re walking up a motorway. No cars, just weeds. Every
time I look behind me, there’re fewer of us. One by one, you see, the radiation’s
getting them.” He glanced at his brother Nick, then over the frozen
lake. “It’s not that I’ll die that bothers me. It’s that I’ll 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 wasn’t for Winston Churchill you lot’d all be speakin’
German now.”
Sure, like Ross Wilcox would’ve evaded capture and headed a resistance
cell. I was dying to tell that prat that actually, if the Japanese hadn’t bombed
Pearl Harbor, America’d never’ve come into the war, Britain’d’ve been
starved into surrender, and Winston Churchill’d’ve been executed as a war
criminal. But I knew I couldn’t. There were swarms of stammer-words in
there, and Hangman’s 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, you’re 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 dong’s a craze at the
moment. There’s no one I can trust to ask what it means.

Trees’re always a relief, after people. Gary Drake and Ross Wilcox might’ve
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 it’d’ve been death to’ve 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 couldn’t 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 I’m 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
master’s peanut Yorkie and a can of Tizer. (Rhydd’s 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
Burch’d start up British Bulldogs again when Tom Yew left. That wasn’t much
of a reason to go back. Just to see where the path might go, I followed it.

There’s only one house in the woods so that’s what we call it, the House in the
Woods. An old woman was s’posed to live there, but I didn’t know her name
and I’d never seen her. The house’s got four windows and a chimney, same as
a little kid’s 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 there’re any ghost stories about it or anything. It’s just
that part of the woods isn’t 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. I’d 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. Mum’d
flay alive any kid she found pissing against our fence, then feed his body to
the compost bin. Including me. “I didn’t 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 lizard’s. “We have no intention of moving away.”
“Oh . . .” I still wasn’t 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 mouth’d glued up. “It wasn’t 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, I’m sorry.”
“You’ll be sorrier,” she said, looking disgusted, “if my brother gets a hold
of you.”
Quiet things were too loud and loud things couldn’t be heard.
“Is he . . . uh, around? Now? Your brother, I mean?”
“His room’s just as he left it.”
“Is he ill?”
She acted like she hadn’t heard me.
“I’ve got to go home now.”
“You’ll be sorrier”—she did that spitty chomp old people do to not dribble—“
when the ice cracks.”
“The ice? On the lake? It’s as solid as anything.”
“You always say so. Ralph Bredon said so.”
“Who’s he?”
“Ralph Bredon. The butcher’s boy.”
It didn’t feel at all right. “I’ve got to go home now.”

Lunch at 9 Kingfisher Meadows, Black Swan Green, Worcestershire, was
Findus ham’n’cheese 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 there’d be no butterscotch Angel Delight for pudding.
Mum says she won’t 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 should’ve 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
these two brothers Hal and Roger Hunt’re 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?”
“Fish’ll eat anything once it’s soft enough. Mind you, if he fell into the
Thames, his body’d 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? What’d happen to him then? Would he sort of stay . . . deep
Thing,” Julia mewled, “is being grotesque while we’re eating, Mum.”
Mum rolled up her napkin. “Lorenzo Hussingtree’s has a new range of
tiles in, Michael.” (My abortion of a sister flashed me a victorious grin.)
“Yes, Helena?”
“I thought we could drop by Lorenzo Hussingtree’s showroom on our way
to Worcester. New tiles. They’re exquisite.
“No doubt Lorenzo Hussingtree charges exquisite prices, to match?”
“We’re having workmen in anyway, so why not make a proper job of it?
The kitchen’s getting embarrassing.”
“Helena, why—”
Julia sees arguments coming even before Mum and Dad sometimes.
“Can I get down now?”
“Darling.” Mum looked really hurt. “It’s 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 Cadbury’s Roses with Kate Alfrick,” I counterattacked, “is
what’s ruined your appetite.”
“So where did the Terry’s Chocolate Orange go, Thing?”
“Julia,” Mum sighed, “I do wish you wouldn’t call Jason that. You’ve 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. “Must’ve
been my honest, charming, obedient, younger sibling.”
How did he know?
“It’s 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 must’ve left the pencil
in the sharpener. Damn Moron. “Your phone was ringing for yonks, like,
four or five minutes, honestly, so—”
Dad didn’t care. “What’s 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 Dad’s palm said HALT!—“I just asked you a question.”
“Yes, but—”
What question did I just ask you?”
“ ‘What’s the rule about not going into my office?’ ”
“So I did.” Dad’s a pair of scissors at times. Snip snip snip snip. “Now, why
don’t you answer this question?”
Then Julia did a strange move. “That’s funny.”
“I don’t 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 couldn’t concentrate
on my revision. The more I told myself it wasn’t 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
didn’t say anything. So I hung up, in case it was a pervert.”
Dad’d gone quiet but the danger wasn’t past.
“That was just like me,” I ventured. “But I didn’t hang up straightaway
’cause I thought maybe they couldn’t 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 don’t want either of you answering, no matter what. If it
happens again, just unplug the socket. Understand?”
Mum was just sitting there. It didn’t feel at all right.
Dad’s “DID YOU HEAR ME?” was like a brick through a window. Julia
and me jumped. “Yes Dad.”
Mum, me, and Dad ate our butt
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