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Chapter 4: Treasure
Doesn’t bother me what happened with Oscar because I’ve got Mr Preen now. It’s weird, because I met him in the exact same way I met Caroline; I was sitting on a park bench drawing the sky reflected in the footprints in the mud, when he sat down next to me and said that my picture was well good. Then he said I was very pretty. I couldn’t help smiling because at school everyone says I’m butters.
His face looked just how a pug dog would look if you squashed it between your palms; long and thin and wiggly with folds. He had sad eyes and his shoulders were lost in a too-big coat; I told him that he was pretty too. He said I must be blind, but he was laughing and smiling, so I reckon he was secretly pleased. He told me to meet him in the same place this Saturday and he’ll take me to a wicked party. When I asked what he meant by this he said, ‘Well, what kind of party would you love to go to?’
I told him how Annabelle is having a party this Saturday and I wasn’t invited but I didn’t care because she was only having a sleepover and although I’ve never been to one apart from with Oscar, I bet they’re rubbish. I told him that my ideal party would be in a room with high ceilings. The ceilings would be painted like a forest, which I’d done myself before everyone got there by lying on top of a ladder like that Italian paper did in the old olden days. (I’d read about that in a book in Oscar’s house). There’d be a mirror ball and a lot of people. Drinks with umbrellas and sparklers inside. Pretty dresses. Cupcakes. Skateboards. And a slide.
He laughed and said that I was in luck because the party we were going to would be just like that.
‘Even the slide?’ I asked.
‘Even the slide.’
This time when he smiled I noticed that his teeth looked like the nuts at Oscar’s house that I could only half-open because I’d never used a nut-cracker before.
He kissed me on the cheek and made me promise to meet him there at 4.00 this Saturday. I told him that would be fine because Bern has a nap around then, so she won’t hear me sneak out. He said it would be better if I wrote down my address just in case, so I did. Then he kissed me on the other cheek and he left. I waited until he was a dot at the very end of the path to wipe his spit off my cheek.
I am glad that I have Mr Preen because Beryl is OK but she does sleep a lot. When she’s not sleeping, she’s watching television. She must do other stuff when I’m at school, because one afternoon I came back and she’d ripped all my pictures off the wall and put them in the outdoor bin. When she was asleep I took them back out of the bin and now they are in pieces under my bed. I hope she doesn’t find them. I don’t reckon she will because I won’t be with her long, I can tell. Mr Preen will probably say that I can come and live with him and it won’t be just for a few weeks like it was with Caroline and Michael because he doesn’t have any children.
It’s easy to tell adults who have kids from adults who can’t; the ones with kids only watch their own. Ones without look right at you like you are a mini adult. When Caroline first saw me, she looked mainly at my pictures; with Mr Preen, his eyes were stuck onto me.
Still, I was a tiny bit sad when Caroline started to pretend not to see me at all, because I had done a very good job of asking all the grown-up questions about all the pretty grown-up things in her house. She always looked like she enjoyed answering, like maybe some part of her was imagining that she was being interviewed on a television show. What I should have done was, I should have shown her all the pictures of the inside of her house that I drew when I got back to our flat. Jazz said that they just looked like random shapes and colours – that was because I’d done them from memory. Caroline would have got it, though; she would be able to tell which shapes were the paintings, which were the African masks, and which the chest of drawers, the huge silver fridge, the piano, the dresser, and the bidet. She owned the originals, see.
Before Gran stopped moving and talking, she told me that if you really wanted to own something, you didn’t have to buy it; you just had to carve out a really firm place for it in your mind. You had to cut it out of the place you’d touched it, work out exactly what it looked like; only then would it fit. She told me that this was an especially useful skill if you were a person who had things happening to them; if nothing ever happened to you, you could go around with your whole life one big vague mess in your head; it wouldn’t be fully yours but you would be happy.
Well we were in the first category; I was seven when Gran taught me about owning. It was just after mum got sent away. I was crying all the time. She told me to pick out the best times and draw them; that way, they would be mine forever. I drew a picture of her pushing me down the slide at the park. I drew her tied to the sofa that one time that she agreed to play monsters with me and Jazz. I drew the rabbit story she used to read to me. The problem was, I was a rubbish drawer back then; I didn’t want to own those ugly scribbles. I drew all over my exercise books, the school tables, tissue boxes, cereal boxes – I was always getting in trouble but I didn’t care; I had to practise.
By the time I was nine, I could catch anything in front of me with a pencil. I took mum’s patent leather heels out of the bottom of Gran’s wardrobe. After wiping them on my bed-sheets, I sketched them onto my bedroom wall with Gran’s eyeliner. Gran cried when she saw them, which was strange, because that was the only time she did it. When she’d blown her nose and wiped her eyes, she snatched the shoes off my bed and told me that I’d have to save up to buy her a new eyeliner. I was scared she’d throw the shoes away but what she did was, she went back into her own room and shut the door. She didn’t know that I could see through the crack in the door. She sat down on the bed and she hugged the shoes and cried some more. Then she put the shoes back into the bottom of the wardrobe and put on a eyeliner and foundation and mascara and blusher and lipstick, which she hadn’t done for years. She took off her clothes and looked at herself in the mirror. She squeezed her belly folds together; they looked like lips. This scared me and I think it scared her too, because she shivered and put on a short black dress with her back to the mirror. After that, she came out of her room and said that she was going to see a friend.
She came back from her friend’s the next day and although she didn’t look happy she didn’t look sad anymore. When mum left, she stopped getting dressed up and going to see friends.
‘Does this mean mum’s coming back?’ I asked. I got that feeling like someone was popping bubble-gum in my belly, which only happens when you’re really happy.
Gran couldn’t hear me, because someone had drilled a hole in the top of her head and sucked out all the sad life goo and put a smile in there instead. (Once, when mum was still here and Gran came back from a friend’s, she had a red sticky patch where her parting should be. I asked what had happened but no one heard me).
Anyway, Gran gave me a twenty pound note and told me and Jazz to get out of the flat and treat ourselves. Me and Jazz went down to the high street. I thought we could go to Pizza Hut but when I asked Jazz he said, ‘Pizza? Do you know where that money comes from?’
I said her friend must have given it to her. He shook his head and just kept on asking if I knew where it came from, over and over and over. He spent all the money on a scratched-up GameBoy from the electronic exchange shop. Jazz can be really mean sometimes.
I don’t know who Gran’s friends were or what she did with them but I don’t think they were very nice because it wasn’t long before I first saw her coughing purple lumps into the toilet. When I asked her what they were, she pulled down hard on the flush and said that I had an over-active imagination. She shut the door after that but I could still hear her; she coughed so hard and so loud that sometimes I could hear her when I was walking up the stairwell on the way back from school.
It was around that time that Jazz started to do grown-up things, like going to Lidl and putting fish fingers in the over. Once, he even took a bin liner of clothes to the Launderette. They came back weird shapes and colours, but I didn’t tell him that because I could tell he was really proud of himself. Gran used to do those things but by then she didn’t want to leave the flat. If she went out, the doctors would get her. They’d stick long thin metal things inside of her and that would be that. That’s what she said. By then, sweat was forever running into her eyes, stopping her from seeing straight; sometimes she talked to me like I was mum and sometimes she talked to Jazz like he was a lot of other people that we had never met but she had.
Sometimes Jazz got angry and told her that she was a mentalist but I don’t think she was. What happened was, was kinds of stuff rolled out of the cubby holes in her mind and into the air around her: sometimes she thought she was back in Oscar’s house and that it was still hers. She’d tell me to sit on her lap. She’d hug me very close to her chest and I’d have to hold my breath because she did smell quite funny. She’d tell me that she was sorry she had put me in the drawer and that she would never do it again. Another time she put Jazz on her lap and told him to tell her stories of the place he had come from. Jazz said he was born right here and she knew it. She slapped him on the cheek and shouted that she’d never been abroad and that he should stop being so selfish and share those places. Jazz is actually a lot taller and stronger than her and when he pushed her away he did it so hard that he made a mark on her arm that was red and then the colour of the sky the day before it snows. He didn’t apologise but I know he felt guilty because he stayed up that whole night sponging her forehead and singing whatever songs she asked for.
The problem with Jazz is that he doesn’t know how to tell stories. If I was him, I’d have just made up something about being born in a distant tropical island with a tangerine sun that hung all day in the sky. Whenever you got too hot or too thirsty, it would squirt yummy juice all over you. Gran would’ve liked that story because ever since the purple lumps started to jump out of her mouth, she was always hot and always thirsty. What I did was, I brought her pictures and stories from Oscar’s house; that’s how comes I asked Caroline so many questions. From the African vase, I told Gran the story about riding the hippo; me, her, Jazz and mum went on a great adventure on its big rubbery back. Gran caught fish and I held them up to the sun to dry them and then jazz made sushi out of them by wrapping them in river grass. You had to concentrate very hard so as not to fall off the hippo. Gran and me and Jazz could do it but mum’s eyes were too cloudy to concentrate; she slipped into and under the water. We never saw her again. We didn’t mind, though, because the hippo told us that she was happy down there, with the mud and the crocodiles. Also, when we got back, we had the best tans ever.
That wasn’t how Oscar’s family got the vase; they bought it from a shop in a safari park. I asked Oscar if he’d been really scared by the lions and the tigers. He shrugged and said that they weren’t really scary because the animals were outside the Jeep and they were on the inside. Also, he couldn’t look at them too carefully because he had lots of itchy mosquito bites and was upset because his Gameboy broke that morning. Jazz said I should have told Gran the truth, but I didn’t want her to know that you could go so far away and still be bored. Jazz said she didn’t know what I was saying anyway. She did, though; her eyes flickered as if all the things that she owned had gone back into the dark inside of her head and she could see me again.
Gran was getting smaller and quieter, so I fed her more and more stories to make sure she didn’t disappear all together. I fed her the story of the frogs’ legs. On Valentine’s Day Michael and Caroline flew to France because they wanted to eat dinner in a chateau. A chateau is exactly the same as a castle except that it’s in France; they got grumpy when they saw a lot of other English couples at the reception. When they went into the candle-lit dungeon for their special meal, they wore black velvet and rolled their rs and said as many French words as they could remember: they wanted the other couples to see that they were different. Neither of them had spoken French for a long time; they laughed a lot at each other’s mistakes, and at how much effort it took to say very simple things. The waiter could not understand their order. Caroline giggled so much that she slid down her seat. The waiter stroked his polished black hair with his white-handed glove. He asked them in very slow English what they’d like. From underneath the table Caroline shouted, ‘Frogs’ legs! Bring us all the frogs’ legs you have!’
‘But there will be no more left for everybody else,’ said the waiter.
‘Exactly!’ said Caroline.
Michael was tucking a napkin into his collar. His cheeks were red.
‘I will see what I can do,’ said the waiter, and sidled away.
Michael saw that many of the other couples were looking at him; he was reminded of a bat colony he’d seen in a cave in Peru.
‘Caroline, that’s enough. Get up,’ he hissed. ‘I shouldn’t have let you finish the wine.’
Caroline got back into her seat properly, smoothed down her velvet dress and pulled Michael on the ear. Then she started singing an old French song very loudly. Michael ate all the crusty bread and oil whilst staring at the crumbs he was dropping on the tablecloth.
A while later the waiter brought them ten frog’s legs. Caroline asked if that was all they had left. The waiter nodded and disappeared.
They peeled the skin of the frog’s legs in silence. Caroline took a few bites, then attempted to tell Michael in French about the first time she’d ever tried that particular dish. She was interrupted by a couple. The couple were dressed in blue velvet. Speaking at the same time, they asked if ‘everything was quite alright’ with the frog’s legs.
‘Oh yes, superb,’ said Michael. ‘Peeling them was as easy as ripping tights of a lady’s leg!’
He laughed from the belly-up. The couple peeped at one another nervously and twittered.
‘Oh,’ said the woman, ‘Because we thought there was something rather strange about ours.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said the man. ‘We’ve had much better in the Café Rouge in Milton Keynes, haven’t we?’
‘Only we thought we’d come over, because when we asked the waiter, he refused to do anything.’
‘We thought,’ –
‘We were meant to be talking French!’ exclaimed Caroline.
The couple shrank towards one another. Michael opened his mouth, but Caroline got there first:
‘I don’t wear tights,’ she said. ‘I never wore tights; in the old days, stocking, and now, just trousers. No tights. Never tights.’
‘Well,’ said the woman, sliding her arm into her partner’s. ‘Thank you. Enjoy your evening.’
Caroline hailed the waiter.
‘Take these away.’ She pointed at the frog’s legs.
‘But what is the problem?’ asked the waiter.
‘They are wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. I never want to look at another one again.’
The waiter took the plate away. Caroline said she wanted to go home, so they did. They spent the rest of their Valentine’s evening on an Easyjet. They got home at midnight. Normally Oscar would be in bed, but he was being looked after by his big cousin Johnny and Johnny didn’t believe in things like bed times. So Oscar saw his mum run over to the kitchen sink and spew purple lumpy stuff into it. Her lumps weren’t like Gran’s, though; just frog’s legs and wine.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said to Michael. ‘I don’t know what came over me. It must have been all that wine.’
‘Or perhaps it was the frog’s legs,’ said Michael. ‘My stomach does feel a bit funny too.’
‘I’m glad we got away from all those other couples,’ said Caroline. ‘Happy Valentine’s Day.’
‘Happy Valentine’s Day.’
Then they kissed a big sloppy kiss right there in front of Oscar and Johnny. When the two cousins burst out laughing Caroline and Michael remembered that they were no longer in that silly castle. They were in their normal house and they had to be parents. They shouted to the boys to get to bed this minute. The next morning, they were back to normal. They never spoke about the frog’s legs again but Oscar didn’t forget; he told me, and I told Jazz and Gran. Gran laughed a bit when I told her that story. Jazz stood in the door listening and I heard him laugh too, but when I turned around to look at him, he tried to look all serious and grown-up. He asked me how comes me and Oscar could know all that. I told him that when Oscar didn’t have me or Johnny or his computer to play with, he spied on his parents through the cracks under the doors.
Other stories I told were about the people that lived in Caroline and Michael’s briefcases. What they did was, they went to all the sad places in London and asked if any of the people there wanted to feel better. Some of the people were too sad to hear them, but others said ok. Caroline and Michael told these people to climb into their briefcases. The people didn’t believe they’d fit, but when their toes touched the leather they shrank. Caroline and Michael took these people to their office. They opened the briefcases. They ran out of the office, locking the doors behind them. The office had a window in one wall, and through that they watched to see what the sad people would do. The strange thing was, that some of the sad people did not go back to their original size, whilst others did. The ones that did tried to grab the ones that didn’t, and when the little ones saw the gynormous hands swooping down on them, they jumped off the edge of the tables before it was too late. When the big people realised that the splats on the floor were actually their old friends, they began to cry. They cried until there was no more water left inside of them. Then they began to blame each other for what had happened. They threw tables and chairs. Soon all but one were big splats on the floor. This one was an old woman. She was bleeding and soon she was going to be dead. She could not bear to look at all the splats on the floor that had once been her friends; that was how she noticed Michael and Caroline staring in at her through the window. She walked up to the window and banged her fists against it and screamed for them to let her out. But Caroline and Michael were so busy writing down everything they’d seen on clipboards that by the time they looked up, she was dead.
By then, Jazz had stopped pretending to be too grown-up for my stories; he sat right next to me on Gran’s bed. He didn’t like that story; it was scary and didn’t make any sense. I said that if he’d heard Caroline and Michael talk about their jobs for as long as I had he’d know what I meant. He said he preferred my earlier stories, like the one about Oscar and Johnny getting swallowed by their Gameboy, or the one about the talking bathtub.
Gran didn’t say or do anything; she wasn’t saying or doing anything anymore. Jazz put his hand on her hand but as soon as he touched it he took it away again. He told me not to tell anymore stories because I was making Gran scared and ill people could not get better if they were scared. But I knew that my stories were the only thing keeping Gran alive; through them, she could feel what it was like to live in her old house, which was the only place she thought it was worth staying alive for and after spending so much time there I can see why. I can see why as if it was a person standing right in front of me, a big person with a loud voice.
I started on the one about the time Caroline got a cold so bad that even after wearing all the jumpers and rugs and duvets and cushions and towels and shawls and cloaks and coats in the house, she was still icy inside. I didn’t get very far because Jazz pushed me off the bed. I bumped my tail bone on the ground and I cried. I remembered Gran telling me that the reason this always hurt so much was that it reminded us of the long-ago times when we were just animals; back then, we didn’t have thoughts. We didn’t know who we were or who other people thought we were. We just did stuff. That made me cry some more. Jazz picked me up and threw me down on the sofa in the other room, telling me to shut up because I was hurting Gran.
He went back into her room and shut the door. I swallowed the water back into my tummy and put my ear to the door. Jazz was whispering, but so quietly that I couldn’t tell what he was saying. He stayed in there so long that I fell asleep against the door. When he opened it, he must have realised I’d been spying on him, but he picked me up and carried me back into bed with Gran and said that she’d told him she loved me very much and that my stories hadn’t scared her one bit because she was a tough old thing. She was a tough old thing. He was smiling, and he told me that he was going to get something that would make her better. He told me to watch her carefully until he got back, then he left.
That was the first time I’d been alone with Gran in the flat since the time when she had stopped moving and talking; I’m not sure how long that was because I never saw the stopping. I could hear my heart beating very fast, but I couldn’t hear hers. I could not hear hers. I lay down next to her but I did not want to touch her skin. I closed my eyes and I whispered to her the story of Caroline’s cold, but I fell asleep before I could get to how she made it go away.
When I woke up, Caroline was there. I thought that she’d come to say we could move back into our house; the time that was stored up Michael and Caroline’s olden day and faraway things would go into Gran and make her move and talk and warm again. Then I looked at Caroline’s face and I knew that it was all over; I’d never go to her house again, not with my feet and not in a story. I knew that Gran couldn’t really live with us anymore because she wasn’t really living. Sometimes I wish she could have been with us long enough for one of us to have finished that story.
I didn’t like the bright shiny smelly lights at the hospital. I felt like I was in Caroline and Michael’s office in the story. We had to sleep in the hospital that night because they said we were too young to be home alone. I couldn’t sleep. The darkness didn’t move in the way that it did in our flat. I felt tiny, like I was trapped in a briefcase and would be forever. Jazz kept on thumping his legs against the bed. I asked if he was awake; he said no. I asked if I could climb into bed with him; he said no but I did anyway. A few minutes later, we were asleep.
We slept together for that whole week we were in the hospital but we can’t do it anymore because I have to sleep at Bern’s and he has to sleep at Morris’s. This is because Bern wanted a girl and Morris wanted a boy. Mr Preen agreed with me that this was really unfair. He also said that after the party on Saturday, it wouldn’t be a problem; he’d arrange for me to sleep with whoever I wanted.
I told Mr Preen a lot of things that afternoon on the bench. I told him how lucky and nervous and cosy I’d felt at Oscar’s house. It was as if I’d tumbled into TV world by mistake. I told him how happy I was when Caroline said that my pictures were good and when she invited me for dinner. I told him how one day when we were big me and Oscar were going to get married and live in a house exactly like that. He told me that Caroline was a two-faced woman and that I didn’t have to wait all those years to be happy; just until Saturday. So that’s what I’m doing. I’ll go to school today, tomorrow and the day after, but I won’t have to listen to all the other girls talking about Annabelle’s party or swimming lessons or any of the other things that they have and I haven’t, because I’ll already be at the party. If you concentrate really, really hard, you can live as far from your body as you like.
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