A Penguin Comes to Tea

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Back to Nature

The only time I ever thought my parents would get divorced was after the time we lived as cave people in the Cascade Mountains.
It was part of a reality TV show, and we agreed to do it because my sister was hoping to become a film star and my father was blown away by the amount of money we were offered. My mother was not so keen on living in a cave, and I was too young to be consulted, but if I had been, I probably would have agreed. I mean, it sounded cool—running around with a bearskin and shooting deer with bows and arrows.
Reality was different, however. The bearskin itched and was too hot and cumbersome most of the time. Plus, it smelled. Not just of bear, but of the person wearing it, and then we were supposed to smear ourselves with some plant paste, so that the animals wouldn’t know we were coming-as if they couldn’t hear us crashing through the trees, cursing every time we stubbed our toes.
“Just how long do we have to do this for?” my mother asked after the second day.
“One month,” puffed my father, who was finding he was not as fit as he had thought.
“I can’t lie on that bare rock for a month,” said my mother. “Surely cave people had some form of bedding?”
“They used moss and animal hides,” said Lisa, my sister, who had read up everything she could about cavemen and who even managed to look stylish in her bearskin.
“Well, we need to go and get some moss, then,” said my mother, “we can look for moss while we gather berries.”
Berry-gathering is not nearly as fun as it sounds. You’re probably thinking of those u-pick farms where the bushes are all in rows and the berries are dripping off the branches. Finding berries in the wild is a different matter, with the bushes jammed into clefts in the rock or hidden behind larger trees, and no bush has more than a handful of ripe berries at any one time.
“I’m hungry,” I said, after a couple of days in the mountains. I knew the others were hungry too, but they wouldn’t admit it.
“I’ll catch us a deer soon,” said my father, who had only managed to trap a rabbit so far, and that was only because he drove it into a hole it could not escape from. Dad didn’t want to admit that he was no good as a caveman, so every morning he set out with his bow and arrows, looking for deer, and every evening he came back empty handed, cursing under his breath.
Later, when we saw the video footage, we discovered that he cursed all day as well, only those words were replaced by bleeps so as not to offend the viewers.
We never knew where the cameras were, as the producers had decided that it would not be realistic if we sat around in our bearskins staring at camera men in jeans, so the cameras were hidden in the cave and around the mountain, and they managed to capture most of what we did, except for the time when Lisa fell into the swamp.
Lisa was a very enthusiastic cave woman, in spite of the lack of comforts. She was convinced an agent would spot her talent and sign her up for a Hollywood movie, so she always spoke loudly and clearly, and made a point of moving around a lot so that she looked as if she was always doing something.
One morning she and I had gone out to search for frogs or anything small that we could eat, seeing as how Dad had still not caught a deer. We hiked down the hill from our cave and walked along the banks of the river, stepping over the slimy rotting logs, searching out anything edible.
“This sucks,” I said. “I can’t believe we’re still here doing this when we could be back in our apartment eating pizza and hot dogs.”
“Oh, quit whining,” Lisa said. “Think of it as an adventure; you’ll have lots to talk about when we do go back home.”
“Not if I die of starvation first,” I muttered. It was alright for her—she was always dieting, so she didn’t care if we had no food, but my stomach was digesting itself.
We got to the point where the river forked, and I turned along the smaller stream, heading for where I knew there was a pool with some frogs in it. If the French can eat frogs, they can’t taste all that bad.
I stepped across the rocks, gripping the warm stones with my toes—one good thing about being a cave boy was that I could run around in bare feet—and squatted down to reach under the reeds when I heard a shriek from behind me. I looked up to see that Lisa had fallen into a dark pool and was waving her arms frantically at me.
“Help! Get me out of here!”
Her bearskin had slipped off her shoulder, and her hair was plastered across her face, making her look like a rag doll. I couldn’t help laughing, until she pulled off one of her slimy bearskin slippers and threw it at me, hitting my left eye. Then I grabbed a handful of mud and threw it back at her, and soon it was an outright war with mud, water, sticks and even stones flying both ways.
Who knows how it would have ended if a bear had not come into the clearing just as we were hurling logs at each other. I didn’t see the bear at first because I was busy dragging a large branch over to the river, but when I looked up to aim my projectile at Lisa I saw the bear rear up behind her, and I screamed so loudly that I nearly deafened myself. Lisa thought I was screaming at her, and she just kept thrashing in her swamp and throwing stones at me, but when she saw where I was looking she leapt out of that swamp faster than I could blink and hobbled over to me.
I think the noise and the sight of Lisa wearing a bearskin covered in mud must have scared the bear because after a moment it loped off back the way it had come. Lisa and I stood in the stream, panting, then we ran back up the hill to our cave as fast as we could, slipping and sliding on the path, me in my bare feet and Lisa in her one remaining bear moccasin.
“What happened?” asked Mum, who was shelling nuts into a piece of bark.
“I fell in the river, and then a bear came,” said Lisa, looking around the cave, no doubt worrying about how she looked in front of the hidden cameras.
“Right; I’ve had enough of this,” said Mum, pushing the bark aside and struggling to her feet. “I’ve put up with this nonsense long enough. You’ve had your chance to preen for the cameras, and your father has had ample opportunity to hit a deer. We’re going home.”
“What! No way are we going home before the thirty days are up,” said Dad, emerging from the back of the cave. So much for hunting—no wonder he doesn’t catch anything if he just sits in the cave all day.
“I’m not giving up!” said Lisa, squeezing out her hair and glaring at Mum.
I just went back outside and left them at it. It wasn’t like my opinion counted anyway. They yelled at each other all afternoon, and the end result was that we got to go home early. The TV company said they had enough footage for eight episodes, and that it was good to show people giving up, which set my parents to fighting again. Lisa locked herself in her room and refused to speak to anybody, so I just went down to the basement and logged on to my video games.
Being a caveman was cool for a while, but I’ll take civilisation any day.
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My Fifteen Minutes of Fame

“Grandma’s on the roof again.”
My heart sank when I read those words. Ever since the doctor prescribed medical pot for my grandma to ease her pain, she has taken getting high to new heights, as it were. Life was fine when she was just living in the suite downstairs, with her caregiver coming every day to do whatever caregivers do, and my brother and I would visit her once or twice a week and drink watery tea, while she nodded off in the corner or told us the same story over and over again.
But then somebody prescribed weed for her. Weed—for an eighty year old woman!
I thought it would be cool, having legal weed in the house, and that maybe Grandma would let me try some, but my Mom regulates when she can have it and keeps the supply under lock and key. My brother and I keep trying to get at it; we just haven’t been successful yet.
I don’t know what the doctor thought the weed would do for Grandma, but it seems to have truly addled her brain. She began by walking around the rest of the house, picking things up and leaving them in a completely different place—I even found her in my room once, fiddling with my games console—but then she discovered the door to the roof. It’s not really a roof, just a small balcony off my parents’ room, but it’s right at the top of the house and has a view in three directions, so we call it the roof.
The problem with the view from three directions is that if you’re on the roof, you can be seen from three directions, and every time Grandma finds her way onto the roof, she can be seen by all the neighbours. In fact, Grandma’s frolics on the roof have become the talk of the neighbourhood, which means I get the brunt of it at school the next day.
“It’s her fifteen minutes of fame,” my Dad told me once, after Grandma had thrown all the potted plants off the roof, thinking that they could fly.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You know, it’s what Andy Warhol said, that everybody could have at least fifteen minutes of fame in their lifetime.”
“Cool,” said my brother, “I’m going to be famous one day.”
“Yeah, well I wish Grandma had had hers when she was younger,” I said, wondering how long this stage was going to go on for.
My parents tried locking their bedroom door, but somebody always forgot and left it open, and in any case, Grandma was quite capable of hiding a key somewhere or slipping into that bedroom when nobody was noticing.
So when I rounded the corner after getting the text about my grandma, I was expecting to see her waving her arms at the sun or singing at the top of her voice, with a few of the younger neighbourhood kids giggling on the street below. I was not prepared for the large crowd that had gathered outside our house, gabbling and pointing, and the TV truck that drove up just as I drew near.
“Look, she’s totally naked,” said somebody.
“I told you she was stark, raving bonkers,” said another person, howling with laughter.
I looked up on the roof and quickly looked away again. Sure enough, Grandma was out on the balcony without a stitch of clothes on her, twirling and singing like an uninflated sprite, a flimsy scarf wrapped around her neck as if to say she was not totally naked.
I tried to sneak into my yard without being seen, but a couple of kids saw me and began to yell.
“Hey, Dylan, your nan’s at it again!”
“What’s she on? Can I have some of that stuff?”
I cringed and turned to walk away, when I saw the TV newsman coming towards me. I couldn’t tell if the camera was rolling, but the man was talking into the microphone, so I assume it was.
“Is this your house?” the man asked, when he got to me.
I nodded and mumbled something and ducked away as soon as I could, diving into the Carter’s yard and round the back to our house.
“Mom!” I yelled, once I was inside. “Go and bring Grandma inside! The whole neighbourhood is watching her dance naked on the balcony!”
There was no answer, and I went upstairs to find my mother’s clothes all over the floor of her room, as if somebody had been playing dress up. Outside on the balcony, Grandma now had a blue hat on her head and was dropping socks over the railings onto the heads of the assembled gawkers.
“Grandma!” I hissed, beckoning to her.
I don’t know if she saw me, but she just kept dropping socks down below. I needed to stop her before she began on the other underwear drawers; airing our dirty linen in public would soon have a whole new meaning for our family.
Finally I did the only thing I knew that worked. I went downstairs into Grandma’s room and got the enormous plush dog that Dad had given her several Christmases ago. The dog stank of weed, as if it had been smoking along with Grandma, but she loved it and seemed to take more notice of it than she did of us, most days.
“Here, Nana, Rufus wants you,” I said, moving over towards the balcony, hoping that the dog was obscuring me from the people below. “Come on inside and talk to Rufus.”
I waved the dog around a bit more, and Grandma finally noticed him and stepped back inside the room. As soon as she was off the balcony, I closed the sliding door and the blinds and shoved some clothes at Grandma. I mean, who wants to see an old lady naked?
After a while Grandma put on a robe and went back down to her room, taking Rufus the stuffed dog with her, and I slumped down in front of the TV. What a day, I thought, as I flipped through the channels.
And then I saw it. A news article about Grandma, with our house centre stage and Grandma flitting about the balcony like a desiccated Juliet, while I mumbled something at the camera, my face beetroot red. Already my phone was pinging with texts, and I groaned. It looked like I was having my own fifteen minutes of fame, all because of Grandma. And I still haven’t even tried any of the weed.

My Mother Was Constantly Confused

My mother was constantly confused over my brother’s business arrangements. Most of his schemes fell on the wrong side of the law so he was careful not to tell her much about his activities but he could not stop her from talking to people she met at her medical appointments, which often resulted in a hasty winding down of the current business.

It started when Norman was a teenager and he filled the shed at the back of the house with pot plants, while a constant stream of visitors called at night and at weekends, to ‘help with the horticulture’.

“My son has a gardening business,” my mother said to her doctor one day, “he has ever so many pots.”

Norman threw his weed into the river later that night, before the doctor could recount the story to the authorities, and he complained about his lost profits for weeks.

His next venture was an unofficial liquor outlet for the local youth which lasted for several months before the parents of the local youth found the source of their offspring’s frequent inebriation at weekends and paid a visit to my mother.

“Your son is selling alcohol to minors,” said one man.

“Miners? I didn’t know there was a mine around here,” said my mother, looking at the deputation on her doorstep. “My son has a business selling boots, I think, although I can’t say that I have ever seen any boots. I’ll ask him when he gets home.”

The liquor business closed after that and was replaced by a series of other shady ventures which he tried to keep a secret from our mother. I moved out once I graduated from school but Norman stayed, taking advantage of the large property and using our mother as the excuse.

“She’s old, she needs looking after,” he would say, while my mother would fuss and cook for him.

There followed a number of years when Norman dealt in stolen goods, buying them low and selling them on at a healthy profit but my mother’s mouth ended that trade also.

“My son does fencing,” she told one of the neighbours who called to talk about an actual broken fence on the property. Norman evaded that question by saying that he would get one of his men to fix it and then had to engage a real contractor to mend the fence, all the time grumbling at the cost and the fact that his activities may have been compromised.

The biggest problem came when my brother agreed to keep some cows for a friend who had been ordered to destroy them after an outbreak of disease on his farm.

“But is that safe?” I asked when I heard of the plan. “What if the disease gets into the food chain?”

“Nobody’s getting diseased,” said Norman, “and there’s no food chain if the cows are kept alive. Just think, we can have fresh milk every day and when the ban is over my friend will still have his cows, instead of being ruined, like the other farmers.”

“How long are you going to keep the cows,” I asked, “and “who’s going to milk them?”

“Only until this scare is over; a year at most” he said, “Isabel is going to milk them and maybe you’d like to come home and help?”

I snorted at the idea of going home to a barn full of illegal cows, although the sight of my brother’s girlfriend squeezing her ample behind onto a milking stool might be worth a day trip.

“And how will you stop Mum from telling anybody about them?” I asked.

“Oh, she knows. I’ve told her there are no cows here and that some film people are making a movie on our land, so there might be some noises and movements, but that she’s not to worry.”

I could not resist going to see the invisible herd so when Norman said he and Isabel had some business out of town the following weekend I drove over to the farm with my husband, Richard.

“No cows!” said my mother as soon as we came through the door. Her eyes opened wide and she shook her head to be sure that we understood.

“Yes, Mum, I know there are no cows here. We just wanted to come and see you,” I said, while Richard went into the kitchen to look for a drink.

“Have you come to be in the movies?” my mother asked, shuffling over to the kettle which was on a constant heating cycle in that house.

“No, Mum,” I don’t think I’d be any good in the movies, and Richard’s too ugly.”

Richard, who had found a beer and was looking out of the window, made a rude sign at me, which my mother did not see as she was reaching into a cupboard for the good tea cups, the ones she only used when visitors came.

“Oh, it’s just that I mentioned to that lady in the pharmacy that we had a movie set here and she said that movies often have parts for extras.”

Richard turned and looked at me, shaking his head in a way that said, “what has she done now?” while my mother set out the tea cups and saucers on the table, still chattering away.

“I told her the movie’s not a Western, as we don’t have any cows, but I don’t know much else about it.”

“Maybe it’s best not to talk about the movie, Mum,” I said, “we don’t want crowds of people coming to try and get autographs or anything.”

“But that’s just it,” she said, her hand wavering as she poured hot water into the teapot, getting almost as much water on the table. “The pharmacist says that her children want to meet the movie stars and can they come over here one day. So I said that no, they couldn’t come because Norman says we don’t have any cows and it’s all a secret.”

She looked down and noticed the spilt water on the table and reached for a cloth. “Now look what I’ve done; this movie business has me all worked up.”

I waited while she wiped the table, refusing any help, and then poured the tea into the cups, and set out the milk and sugar, all the time muttering about cows and movies. Richard, who hates tea, sat down with his beer while I added milk to my cup and stirred it, obliging my mother with the familiar ritual.

We talked of other things and soon my mother had relaxed and wanted to know about our health and our jobs and she appeared to forget about Norman and his deals until the door burst open and Norman himself came in, followed by Isabel, both of them looking very flustered.

“No cows!” said my mother at once, her hand raised to her breast, as if she were swearing in front of a judge.

“Mum! What have you been telling people?” Norman asked looking all around the room as if he expected somebody to be hiding behind the sofa. “I’ve had a call from the agriculture department who say they have been told we have cows on the property.”

“No cows! I said no cows!” my mother repeated, looking from Norman to the rest of us, becoming agitated.

“We’ll have to hide the cows,” said Norman, looking at his watch, “we have about two hours before the inspectors get here.

“Where are you going to put them?” Richard asked, “they’re not exactly small and you only have one barn.”

“We’ll have to bring them into the house,” said Norman, “we can cram them all into the parlour; nobody ever goes in there, and we’ll get Isabel to fry up some onions to cover up the smell, and Mum can be watching TV with the volume turned up due to her bad hearing.”

“You must be joking,” I said, but Norman was not listening, he had already opened the back door and was racing towards the barn.

“Come on, everybody, there’s no time to argue!”

It took us nearly two hours to move all thirteen of the cows from the barn into the parlour. We had to lay some sheets of plywood to create a ramp up to the porch as they refused to put their feet on the steps and they stood lowing on the grass while Norman kept shushing them and Richard, who was thoroughly enjoying the escapade, whacked them with a stick.

The whole house stank from the onions and garlic that Isabel was frying in the kitchen and Norman turned on the compressor to make more noise so that we had to shout instructions at each other.

“What about the movies?” I asked, “Won’t they expect to see sets and cameras?”

“No, we’ll just say they were shooting a scene with two people talking so the director didn’t need any equipment.”

An hour later, just as we had gathered around the table with plates of fried onions there was a knock at the door and an official with a clipboard came in. He nodded to us all and asked for Norman, while I held my mother’s hand, willing her not to speak, wondering why we had not taken her upstairs to her bedroom.

“I’ve had a report that there are cattle on this property, sir,” the inspector said.

“Well that’s not true; there are no cattle here,” said Norman, sweeping his arm around to point at the fields outside, “come out and have a look.”

Norman and the inspector went out to the barn and I turned to Richard and said, “did anybody clean the barn after we moved the cows out?”

He grimaced, and I could tell what he was thinking. Evidence of the cows was all over the barn. I wondered if Norman would be fined or arrested, and what would happen to the cows when they were discovered, and how we would ever get them out of the parlour. The band on the TV belted out its songs and the compressor whined while we sat in silence waiting for the verdict. After a while Norman and the inspector came back, both laughing.

“So I said to the producer that he could bring in cow manure to set the scene, but then they left it all behind after they’d finished shooting and now I’ll have to clean it up myself,” Norman shook his head as he recounted a tale to the inspector.

“I hope they paid you well to dump all that poop on your land,” said the inspector, who appeared to believe the story.

“Oh yes, we got a good deal, and they’ll mention us in the credits, too,” said Norman, and I wondered if he was going to name some big star who was appearing in the movie and further complicate our lives.

“Well, I look forward to seeing it,” said the inspector and turned towards the door. “Thank you for your time, and sorry to bother you.”

“Cows,” said my mother, who seemed to suddenly remember what we had been doing earlier.

“No Mum,” said Norman, “the man was looking for cows but there are no cows here.”

I gripped my mother’s hand and shook my head at her, while moving a plate of congealed onions in front of her.

“No cows,” I said.

“No cows,” she repeated as the door closed behind the inspector, “so who’s in the parlour then? Shall I make them tea?”

Never Again

“You’re looking very smug tonight, Harold,” said Edith, as she set the table for dinner.      
Harold took a long swig of his beer, leaned back in his favourite chair and smiled at her.      
“I’ve fixed that yapper for good,” he said.      
“What do you mean?” Edith turned and frowned at him.      
“Never again will we have to hear that constant yapping from next door,” said Harold. “Never again will we have to watch where we step in our own front yard because that mutt has done his business on our property.”      
Edith’s eyes widened as she stared at her husband.      
“What have you gone and done, Harold?”      
Harold shrugged and looked away.      
“A dog needs a good home. It needs space; not concrete paths like in this street full of houses.”      
“Harold! What have you done with their dog?”      
Edith put down the plates and marched over to Harold’s chair, standing in front of him with her arms on her hips.      
“You’d better not have done anything with their dog, or I’ll—well, I don’t know what I’ll do but I’ll be very angry.”      
“Relax, Edith, I haven’t touched the dog.”      
Harold waved her away and went back to his beer, refusing to say any more about the dog, or the neighbours, talking instead of his day at work, and by the time they had finished dinner, Edith had worked herself into a state over the dog. She kept getting up to look out of the window but she could not see all the way into the neighbours’ yard, and she did not want to look as if she were spying on them.      
“They’ll think you’ve got something to hide, if you keep poking your head around the curtains like that,” Harold said, thrusting his arm into his coat and grabbing his car keys. “I’m just going out for a bit.”
Harold disappeared into the garage and a moment later she heard the noise of the garage opening and the car reversing out. Edith busied herself with the dishes and keep looking out of the window, hoping to catch sight of the dog, but instead she saw Joanna Marley from next door coming up their driveway. Edith hurriedly wiped her hands and rushed to open the door before Joanna had even rung the bell.      
“Oh, hello, Joanna, I was, er, just, er—”      
“Edith, have you seen Charlie?” Joanna asked, peering around Edith as if she expected the dog to be hiding inside the house. “He’s been missing for several hours and I know he sometimes likes to run around in your yard.”      
“No, sorry, I haven’t seen him,” said Edith, glad that she did not have to lie about that, and wondering where Harold had gone and what he had done with the dog.      
“Will you keep an eye out for him?” asked Joanna, who had turned and was now looking around the shrubs, clenching and unclenching her fists.      
“Of course I will, and I’ll ask Harold if he’s seen him as soon as he comes home.” Edith kept the smile fixed on her face until she closed the door and then let out a big sigh. She was certain Harold had somehow got rid of the dog next door and that he would be found out and there would be a horrible fight with the Marleys. And all because the dog yapped. And left stuff in their yard. And there was the time it bit her nephew. And–      
Edith stopped thinking of the dog and began to think about Harold. What could he have done, and where had he gone?      
It was late before Harold came back and from the smell of him he had been drinking, but he was still very pleased with himself and he planted a loud,wet kiss on Edith’s cheek.      
“Nice and quiet here, isn’t it?”       
Edith pushed him away and frowned at him.      
“Harold! What have you done with that dog? Joanna was here asking if we’ve seen it and I didn’t know what to say.”      
“The dog’s gone out west,” said Harold. “There was a removal van two streets over; the people are heading out to the country and they had a big sofa in the back of the van. All I did was throw some dog treats into the van and that mutt was in there like greased lightning. I’ll bet those two young kids will be delighted to have a dog when they get to their new home.”      
Edith stood staring at Harold, her eyes wide, not sure what to say.      
“Come on Edith, you hated that dog as much as I did, with its constant barking. Think about it—the dog gets a new home, some kids are happy, the Marleys find something else to fill their time and we can walk on our grass in bare feet again.”      
Edith shook her head. She was sure there would be trouble once the dog was discovered, but at least she could truthfully say that she had no idea where the dog was. She opened the window to let in some air and for the first time noticed the quiet, and even heard the frogs croaking. Perhaps Harold had done the right thing after all.

Composting

“What have you got there?” I asked my sister as she dragged a heavy bag out of her car.
“Wood shavings, or sawdust or something. It’s for George,” she puffed, pulling the bag up the two steps to the house. I ran to help her, worried that the bag would split and leave a trail of sawdust on her carpet, while the dog bounded around us, wagging his tail in my face.
“Whatever does George want that for?” I asked, wondering what new project her husband had taken up.
“It’s for the new toilet, actually,” my sister said, pointing towards the extension on the side of the house. “He’s gone all ecological and installed a composting toilet. It’s going to save the environment and save us lots of money at the same time.”
“So you’re the one who has to haul the bags of sawdust around?”
My sister just shrugged, and looked a bit embarrassed, so I moved the furniture out of the way as she pulled the bag along the floor with the dog following closely, sniffing hard at the bag.
“The sawdust is only temporary,” my sister said, wiping her hands as she came back to get the rest of her purchases from the car. “George says he is going to make his own wood shavings once everything is finished.”
“Oh, yes?”
I looked outside to the shed, which contained partially completed furniture and enough car parts to build at least three vehicles, except that none of the parts matched. Behind the shed stood a boat covered in a tarpaulin, and, beyond that, several pieces of rusting machinery. George was never short of a project.
“So how does it work then?” I asked.
“Well, you just pour the wood shavings into the toilet in place of water and it all composts itself.”
“Good luck with that,” I said, and went home to my old fashioned plumbing, grateful that my husband was not in the least bit practical.
The next time I visited my sister I made a point of checking out the new bathroom, which smelled of fresh wood from the large bin of wood shavings next to the composting toilet. The dog followed me around, looking unusually subdued. When I asked what was wrong with him my sister pointed outside to where George was standing in front of a workbench next to a large pile of logs. George picked up a log and clamped it into the workbench, then, taking his power saw, he whittled away at the end of the log, showering wood bits onto a mound under the table.
“Wow, that’s quite a process, just for a toilet,” I said.
“It’s awful. The logs were delivered in a big truck that hit the neighbour’s gate when it reversed and now George is out there for hours making that terrible noise, and the bits of wood blow all over the place and have already blocked one drain, and the poor dog is stuck indoors, to keep him safe.”
“Why don’t you just buy more of those bags of sawdust?” I asked, “isn’t that what the manufacturers recommend?”
“George says they’re a rip off and the company is profiting at the expense of the environment,” my sister said.
As we watched the power saw slice through another log, a sliver of wood flew from the saw and broke the window of the shed, sending shards of glass all over the grass. George stopped the saw and looked at the glass, shaking his head. The dog, no doubt taking the silence as a sign that he could now go out, began to bark and scratch at the door.
“Oh dear; George will have to clean up that glass before we let the dog out.”
“Perhaps you could train the dog to use your new toilet,” I said. “Now that really would save the environment.”

Keeping a Secret

“Sit here, Mrs. Weston,” said the nurse who met Barbara at the nurses’ station. “Your husband is doing fine after his operation. He’ll be up on the ward soon and then you will be able to see him.”
Barbara sat on the hard plastic chair and clutched her coat around her neck, subconsciously fending off the germs she knew ran rampant around hospitals. The smell of disinfectant mingled with the smell of disease and unwashed bodies curled around her nostrils, taunting her. Arthur wouldn’t like it here. He would want to come home as soon as possible. Everybody knew that you only went into hospital to die.
Barbara wondered how they expected patients to rest with constant humming of machinery and the bright lights, not to mention the nurses bustling in and out of their rooms clanging metal dishes and making the poor patients swallow dozens of pills.
After about twenty minutes the doors opened at the end of the hall and two orderlies came pushing a large bed down the passageway, tubes trailing and monitors bleeping. A pale, droopy version of Arthur lay on the pillow, a large bandage across his chest, his face small and lined. Barbara choked back a tear as she stood up and followed the bed into one of the rooms where a nurse uncoiled tubes and cables, plugging them into the control panel at the head of the bed and then switched on the monitors on the table nearby. She pumped the bed up higher then reached under the bed and pulled out the bag containing Arthur’s clothes, and looked around the room for a place to put them.
“I’ll hold his clothes,” said Barbara, reaching over and taking the bag. She felt comforted clutching the familiar, worn sweater and blue shirt. She had told him to wear something decent for going into hospital but he would not hear of it.
“Why do I have to dress up if I’m going to be asleep?” he had said. “Besides, I’ll have to wear one of those awful gowns.”
The nurse left the room and Barbara opened the bag, taking out the sweater, shirt and pants which she folded properly and placed on the arm of her chair. Arthur’s shoes were also in the bag and she pulled them out and set them on the floor by the bed. She thought the bag must be empty so she was surprised to feel one more thing and she drew out a small clear bag with something pink inside it. Barbara opened it up and found a set of false teeth grinning at her.
“How disgusting,” she thought, “they’ve gone and given me somebody’s teeth and the owner is probably wondering where they are.”
She went outside to the nurse’s station and handed them the bag, saying, “I think we’ve been given somebody else’s teeth.”
Back in the room Arthur was stirring and mumbling as the effects of the anaesthetic wore off. Barbara took his hand, so thin that she could feel every bone through the mottled skin.
“Arthur? It’s me. How are you feeling?”
But Arthur only mumbled and drooled, so she began to tell him news from home: how the neighbour’s dog had scratched the fence again, and what her sister had said on the phone that morning. Soon Arthur drifted off to sleep and Barbara fussed around him, straightening the bedclothes and moving the curtain. He looked smaller, somehow, as if his face had shrunk.
Barbara sat down in the chair by the bed and she must have dozed off, for the next thing she knew the evening sunlight was reflecting off the mirror on the wall next to her and Arthur was sitting up in his bed, mumbling, and feeling around himself, as if searching for something.
“What is it, Arthur?” she asked, “how are you feeling?”
“Mrrlf,” said Arthur, his cheeks pumping like bellows. He put his hand up to his face, then turned away from her.
“What is it, love? Do you need a nurse?” Barbara looked around for the call bell, then ran out in to the passage and summoned one of the nurses who came in and checked all the tubes and monitors while Arthur waved his hands around as if conducting an orchestra. He motioned Barbara away then beckoned the nurse closer and whispered something. Barbara wondered if he needed to use a bedpan or something; she could have helped him with that, after all they had been married thirty years and had no secrets.
A moment later the nurse came back in with a tray and bent over Arthur; she must be giving him some medicine, Barbara thought. Poor man, he was probably in a lot of pain.
Whatever the nurse gave him must have done him good, for as soon as she left Arthur looked more like his old self, and he turned to Barbara with a big smile.
“Hello Barb,” he said, “come to take me home?”
Barbara stayed until the end of visiting hours, then, promising to come back first thing in the morning she headed out, stopping first at the nurses’ station to thank them for looking after Arthur.
“Bye, Mrs. Weston,” said a young nurse, “I’m glad we were able to find Mr. Weston’s dentures.”
Dentures?
The nurse smiled at Barbara who stood gaping at her.
Dentures. All these years of marriage and she had not known. What other secrets was Arthur keeping from her? Well, she would find out in the morning.

I Know How it Feels to be an Outsider

“My father is a registered sex offender.”
The students in the auditorium gasped and began murmuring while some of the teachers looked at each other in surprise but the young girl standing at the podium just looked straight out at her audience and continued speaking in a slow, calm voice.
“You’re probably all thinking that he’s a pervert who preys on little kids and that he deserves to be locked up for life.”
Many heads nodded in agreement, some swivelling to see the reaction of the teachers standing at the back of the room. Mrs. Hughes, the English teacher, was used to the shock aspect of Speech Day; it was the one opportunity to say controversial things in front of an audience, and students sometimes crossed the line, forcing the teachers to shut down a speech, but she had not expected this from Jessica Wilson, the new girl who always sat at the back of the class, and rarely spoke.
There had been the usual sighs and sniggers from her class of teenagers when she reminded them that Speech Day was coming up.
“And before you all ask,” she had said, “yes, you do have to participate, and your speech must be your own, not one copied off the internet or from one of last year’s students, so you can use the rest of this period to think about your topics.”
The students groaned as they pulled out fresh sheets of paper and began doodling and writing about the usual subjects of pets and family holidays. Now that she thought about it, there had been some commotion in the class.
“Ugh, gross!” cried Nick Dobbs, peering over at Jessica’s paper. “Jess wants to talk about sex offenders.”
“Pervs, you mean,” said Elizabeth Culter, “like you.”
“Lock them all up,” called somebody from across the room, and several other voices began to chime in, until Mrs. Hughes quieted the class. She noticed that Jessica’s head was down, her long hair obscuring her face while she wrote.
When the bell rang the students all jumped up and gathered their belongings, moving out of the room in a herd, already talking about other things. Jessica gathered her books and left on her own before Mrs. Hughes could say anything and now here she was, giving her speech.
“He’s not like that, but I don’t suppose you’ll believe me, now that you’ve heard the term ‘sex offender’. That’s all you’ll focus on and you’ll all avoid me and whisper about me behind my back.”
The girl looked directly at the student on the end of the first row, then moved her gaze along, pausing at each student in turn. The room was silent now, and some students began to squirm in embarrassment. Mrs. Hughes glanced over at the school counsellor and raised her eyebrows, indicating the obvious: this girl needed some form of help. The counsellor nodded and Mrs. Hughes wondered if the school had a file on Jessica, whom she had always found to be so quiet and withdrawn you could almost forget she was in the class.
“That’s OK. I’ve been there before; I know how it feels to be an outsider, to be excluded.”
Jessica talked about her lack of friends and Mrs. Hughes wondered if this was a result of bullying, and if so, how long it had been going on for. She sighed; in spite of the rallies and pink shirt days, bullying was as much a part of teenage life as it had always been, and teachers were always the last to know.
“Well, let’s forget about the offender part and talk about sex,” continued Jessica, breaking into a grin.
The students sniggered; they were back onto a favourite topic, one they could relate to. The teachers rolled their eyes and some looked at their watches.
“I know you’re all interested in sex, and some of you have even tried it.”
The students laughed and all looked around, wide-eyed, as if they could spot the cavorting couples. Some pointed fingers at particular students while others whispered in the ear of the person next to them, no doubt passing along salacious pieces of gossip. Mrs. Hughes took a step forward, intending to stop the speech, but the deputy head signalled to her to wait.
“Well, my Dad had sex with my Mom,” said Jessica, “and they had me. Just like each of you is here because of an action by your parents. It’s simple biology.”
The students were now making gagging noises; sex was all fine when it was on TV or between themselves, but totally gross when connected with their parents, or any adult that they knew.
“My Dad was eighteen, the same age as some of you,” Jessica pointed at the tall, lanky boys sprawled on the chairs the in back row who cheered and waved their fists in response.
“This is getting out of hand,” whispered Mrs. Hughes to the deputy head, “should I stop the speech and move on?”
“No, I think this could be interesting,” he replied, “wait and see what point she is trying to make.”
“But my Mom was only fifteen, the same age as some of you,” and here Jessica pointed at the first row of students, and the younger ones blushed and glanced at each other.
Jessica waited until all the snickering and elbow nudging had died down and addressed her audience again.
“And because of that one time, when a teacher found them in their school’s store room, my father was declared a sex offender and placed on a national registry.”
The students were silent now, staring intently at the girl standing up on the stage.
“And do you know what that means? I doubt it, because you probably don’t know any sex offenders. Let me tell you.”
Jessica moved away from the microphone and began to pace back and forth along the edge of the stage, her voice rising in volume as she spoke.
“My Dad is not allowed to come within 300 metres of this or any school. I take a twenty minute bus ride to come here every day just so there’s no chance that anybody who becomes my friend might try to walk home with me. I can never invite kids to my house. My Dad can’t watch me play sports, and he can’t come swimming or bowling with me. My Dad never pushed me on a swing in a playground because he is not allowed in the parks. We’ve moved house six times because the neighbours threatened him after discovering he’s a registered sex offender; one time we nearly had our house burned down.”
The students were all staring at Jessica, mesmerised by her speech. Mrs. Hughes looked over at the counsellor, wondering how many students would seek advice after this revelation.
“You probably think this speech is all about avoiding underage sex,” Jessica continued, “but it’s not. It’s about accepting other people. People like me and my Dad. I’ve been bullied, ignored and threatened, all because of something that’s not my fault. I’ve learned to ignore it, mostly, but it can be hard. My Mom and Dad just want to lead a normal life. Is that too much to ask?”
There was a moment of charged silence as Jessica walked back to the podium, gathered her notes and turned to step off the stage. Then the students at the back began to clap, and the applause spread across the room, with many students standing, and all craning their necks to follow Jessica as she took her seat in the centre of the auditorium.
“Well, how do you follow that speech?” the deputy head muttered as the next speaker stepped up to the microphone.
Mrs. Hughes looked over at the counsellor who was already surrounded by a group of students.
“It’s not Speech Day we have to worry about,” she said. “Just wait until this news gets out to the parents.”

The Big Secret

With his cutlass clamped tightly between his teeth and two primed pistols tucked into his waistband, the pirate captain vaulted from the forecastle of the Flying Dragon onto the deck of the captured ship, avoiding the sword fight that was engaging most of the crew. He scaled the rigging like a monkey, hand over hand, pulling himself up to the topmost spar before launching himself on a rope across the deck, swinging like a pendulum over the heads of the struggling sailors, from where he was able to pick off both the ringleaders, with two carefully aimed shots.
After that, the battle was over, save for the trussing up of the defeated sailors and the symbolic walking of the plank. The pirates had discovered that it was more lucrative to ransom captured sailors than push them into the sea, but as the sailors did not know this, the pirates enjoyed lowering the plank over the gunwale and watching the prisoners cower as they teetered on the bouncing board, pleading for their lives.
“You won’t get away with this!” shouted one of the victims, as he was led down to the hold, “there’s a bigger ship coming after us and when they catch you, you’ll all hang!”
The pirates laughed and set to looting everything of value from the ship.
“Shall we scuttle her?” asked one of the pirates, getting ready to chop a hole in the side of the captured ship, as was their usual custom.
“No, let’s keep this ship,” said the captain, so the pirates raised their own flag on her and set sail, in convoy, for the sheltered bay where they had established their winter quarters.
It was a very convenient hideaway. Wide sandbanks protected the bay, and tall cliffs provided a good lookout, making it hard for enemies to approach unseen, whilst a tree lined river that flowed into the bay provided fresh water. The only problem was the women who had taken up permanent residence by the sea shore, and who had re-buried the pirates’ treasure, refusing to divulge its new hiding place.
“Avast, ye landlubbers,” cried One-eyed Pete, standing up in the longboat and shaking his fist at the women standing on the beach as two junior pirates rowed him ashore. “This is our camp, so move off, if you don’t want to become shark bait.”
The two women laughed, and waved their weapons: a pistol and a nasty looking axe. The longboat slid onto the sand and Pete jumped out, raising his hands in the air as one woman pointed the pistol at him, while the other lady minced up to him and, dropping the axe on his toes, put her arms around his neck and planted a kiss on his cheek. One-eyed Pete cursed, and kept his good eye on the pistol, worried that it might go off, but then he noticed the medallion hanging around her neck.
“Hey, that’s mine! Where did you get that, you little strumpet!” he shouted, but had to step backwards into the water as the woman advanced on him waving her pistol.
“That’s our treasure!” said Pete.
“And this is our land,” said the woman, gesturing around her. “You can visit here, and re-supply your boat, but you leave us in peace, and in return, we keep your treasure safe.”
While Pete gnashed his teeth and stomped in the sand, keeping his distance from the women, another longboat slid onto the seaweed, bringing several more pirates, armed with the usual cutlasses and pistols. The captain leapt ashore, but instead of disarming the welcome party he swept his hat off his head and made a smooth bow.
“Well, my lovelies, have you missed me?”
“Captain Jasper, come back to visit us again, have you?” said axe woman, kissing him, and winking at Pete, who curled and uncurled his fists, glaring at both women.
“I couldn’t stay away, darling,” replied the captain, squeezing her round bottom, which earned him a clout on the head from the axe.
The longboats made several trips to and from the ships, transporting the captured sailors who were made to walk up the beach and into a hut made of stout logs with a door secured by a heavy bolt.
“Not more mouths to feed,” said axe woman, “it’s bad enough having you louts here once a month, scaring all the fish away.”
“Don’t worry, Marianne, darling; they’ll be gone as soon as we get paid for them, and then you can have your house back,” said the captain.
“House, indeed!” she harrumphed, but she swung her hips as she walked back into the trees.
With the prisoners stowed out of sight, the pirates got down to the serious business of celebrating their haul, while the women, now numbering several dozen, listened wide-eyed to their tales of adventure. By the time two casks of rum had been emptied and the last cooking pot had been licked clean, there was not a sound to be heard from the beach but snoring.
A few hours later, the sun rose slowly, majestically, almost unnoticed, sending out fingers of light, tentative at first, soft pink hues as if testing the terrain and then longer, more definite rays, broken only by puffs of clouds, which reached to the farthest corner of the shoreline, turning each blade of dune grass and each strand of seaweed a brilliant green, where once they had appeared black and sombre, and dispatching the morning dew into a gentle mist that rose to the heavens in the endless cycle of water and cloud.
Down at the beach the pirates lay in a drunken heap, eye patches askew, cutlasses tossed aside, while crabs scuttled into and out of their discarded boots. A couple of the women had lit the cooking fires and were brewing coffee, with much banging of pots and muttering about good-for-nothing layabouts, while the birds, who had been up for hours, cawed to each other from the tree tops until a sudden disturbance sent them all flying away.
A moment later, a young boy came racing down the hillside onto the beach, scattering sand onto the sleeping pirates and yelping with excitement.
“A ship! A ship! It’s coming around the headland!”
“What sort of ship?” asked Marianne, throwing a bucket of water over Jasper, who sat up with a start, reaching for his pistol.
“A big ship,” said the boy, “it has guns at the side.”
“Who was on lookout duty?” roared Jasper, kicking the nearest pirate, who grunted and then covered his head with his hands as Marianne threw water on him and his companion. Either the cold water or the unwelcome news had a sobering effect on the pirates who began to scramble up and pull their boots on, sending the crabs flying.
“There must have been a warship following the ship we boarded,” said One-eyed Pete, “that’s why the prisoners said help would be coming soon. Now what do we do? We can’t get the Flying Dragon out of the bay in this low tide.”
“You men take your ship up the river,” said Marianne, “and leave the warship to us, but bring me some rope.”
“How long do we have?” Jasper asked the boy who had brought the news.
“The big ship was rounding the point, and it seemed to be coming fast,” the boy said, his eyes bulging out of his head.
The pirates struggled to their feet and collected their cutlasses. The more sober ones were already rowing out to the Flying Dragon and shouting for the sails to be raised and they quickly steered the pirate ship into the mouth of the river where it was concealed by the tall trees, leaving the looted ship anchored alone in the bay, still flying the pirate flag. The women cleared away all signs of revelry from the beach and then trussed each other up like turkeys and waddled into the wooden hut where they knocked the terrified prisoners unconscious.
“Drag some of those green branches over here and set fire to them, to make smoke,” shouted a woman to one of the pirates, “but mind you don’t cook us – put some water on the roof first!”
As the building began to burn, the women began to wail and screech like banshees and the remaining pirates sneaked off into the trees.
It was not long before the warship arrived and soldiers landed on the beach and rushed up to the burning building, carrying buckets of water to put out the flames, creating more clouds of smoke, while the distressed damsels all cried at once about the evil, depraved pirates who had tied them up, and worse, and clung to the soldiers in gratitude for their rescue. In all the commotion the group of unconscious sailors went unnoticed, and so did the small posse of pirates who swam out to the captured ship, clambering on board in time to repel a boarding party of soldiers.
By the time the soldiers who had remained on the warship realized that the pirates had overcome their comrades the tide had turned and the warship was stuck in the soft sand, her cannon pointing uselessly at a sandbank.
Pirates swarmed out of the trees and overpowered the soldiers on the beach, while the women resumed shrieking and flailing about with smouldering branches. Within an hour the pirates had roped the soldiers together and were unloading the supplies from the warship, while the women huddled to one side, whispering among themselves.
“This is treason!” cried a soldier.
“No, this is piracy,” said One-eyed Pete, grinning.
“I ask that you spare the women,” said another soldier, who had obviously been brought up on tales of chivalry.
“Spoils of war!” cried one of the pirates, drawing a finger across his throat and making a gurgling sound, which caused several of the soldiers to flinch, and shuffle backwards.
It took some time to ferry all the soldiers out to the captured ship, where they were laid out on the deck in rows, like sausages, each with a cannon ball positioned on a delicate part of his anatomy, and then the pirates and the women sat down to parley.
“They’re our prisoners; we lured them onto land,” said the women.
“They came searching for us, so they’re ours,” said the pirates, “besides, we swam out to the ship, and we fought the soldiers. All you women did was weep and wail.”
“We were being burnt to a crisp!” said one woman, pointing to the soot marks on her face.
“It seems to me,” said Jasper, rubbing his hand along his stubbly chin, “that we should come to an agreement. If some of us were to stay here permanently – for protection, you understand – then perhaps we could share the ransom money.”
“Stay here?” repeated the pirates, with a mixture of horror and excitement. “What would we do here?”
“Well you could build me a house, for a start,” said one of the younger women, sidling up to the pirate and putting her arm around him. “This is a great place to live.”
The other pirates whooped and slapped their thighs, which seemed like an invitation for other women to make similar offers.
“But won’t the Flying Dragon be shorthanded?” said one pirate. “And how do we know you’ll come back for us?”
“Oh, we’ll be back,” whispered Jasper, “after all, the treasure is here somewhere, and it’s your job to find out from these sirens where they’ve hidden it.”
And so, gradually, a small settlement grew up around the bay. Several times a year the pirate ship called in for supplies; sometimes one or two of the pirates would stay and settle down, and sometimes one or two of the settlers who wanted adventure, or just to get away from their women, would join the pirates. The young boys were always eager to spend time on the pirate ship, returning home months later with tall tales of plunder and pillage. The girls were content to stay in the bay, waiting for their sweethearts to come back to them, for the girls shared a secret which they guarded fiercely and would tell to nobody, even to this day: the secret of the buried treasure.

The Cart

James held his breath and poked the shovel one more time into the pile of manure. He did not know how one horse could produce so much dung and he did not see why he had to clear it up when it was not even his horse.
“I can ride my bike faster than any horse,” he had said, when his father first proposed the idea, “and I don’t have to feed it or clean up after it.”
His father had thought he was smart, beating the oil shortage by buying a horse – nag more like. James had been the butt of jokes at school for weeks until the girls started coming round to pet the horse and the boys realised that the best way to impress the girls was to claim to be able to ride the horse. Riding had lasted one week until the fourth boy fell off and James’ father had stopped them from riding.
“The horse is for transport,” he said, “so we must train it to pull the cart.”
The cart. That was another object of ridicule: a converted trailer with a sports canopy on top.
“We have to work with the materials we have,” his father had explained, “and your mother can hardly go grocery shopping or take your sister to school on a bicycle.”
James was so embarrassed the first time his father took the cart out that he had spent the day at home rather than let anybody he knew see his father riding around on the contraption. But that had been two months ago and he did not worry so much about appearances any more because their lives had changed so much, and all because of the oil ban.
He had never really thought about how much gas the old car used, nor where it all came from, although he had been aware of the prices creeping steadily upwards and his parents’ worries. When they told him he would have to give up baseball because they could not longer afford to drive to the games he was furious and sulked for a week, arguing each time the car was taken out that the journey was not as important as his baseball game but gradually all his friends gave up their sports and activities too. The lucky people who had electric cars had been able to keep driving for a few more weeks but then the government banned the recharging of cars and overnight all means of transport other than public trams were banned, and even they were rationed by a very selective coupon system.
That was when James noticed how far it was to everywhere, even on his bike. Riding the half hour to the skate park had never seemed a chore before, but now it was half an hour on his bike to the library, to school, to almost anywhere he wanted to go, and of course he had to carry his stuff with him. The smart kids had bought bike panniers when the crisis started but by the time James thought of that the store had sold out and of course with no new goods coming into the country there was a shortage of everything.
His mother still taught at the elementary school, although the number of students was declining each week as more and more kids stayed at home to help with finding food and work. His father had given up his job in the city once he could no longer get there on a daily basis and was now stuck at home, trying out this crazy scheme of using a horse and wagon as a taxi service, and he, James had to clean up the taxi poop.
It was just not fair.

The Waiting Room

Anna pushed open the door and stepped into the waiting room. The buzz and chatter died down while those assembled inside turned their heads towards her, the newcomer. Their curiosity satisfied, they resumed their mumblings and moaning, and Anna was able to creep to an empty seat, where she shrunk down, hugging her knees to her body, trying to become invisible.
She hadn’t wanted to come. Somehow it was like admitting defeat to come here, to wait in this room, hoping. She looked around her and wondered if she looked like the other people: they had a sort of desperate air about them, as if they had nothing to lose.
In the corner an old lady sat, mumbling to herself. Her head was nodding, like one of those plastic dogs people used to put in the back of their cars. Anna watched, fascinated, while the old lady’s head nodded around all the way to the right, until she was staring at the wall. The head paused, then began the journey back again, nod, nod, nod, all the way. Anna caught the lady’s eye on the return journey, and smiled, in what she hoped was a reassuring way but the woman just stared right through her with barely a pause in the nodding.
The chair next to Anna was unoccupied, but there was a newspaper lying across it. Anna reached out a hand to move the newspaper and a man in a chair on the other side of it frowned at her.
“Do you mind?” he said, in a voice that showed he minded very much, “I am reading that.” Anna pulled her hand back.
At the far end of the room a door opened and a woman in a white coat came through, carrying a clipboard. She looked around the waiting room and called loudly, “Mrs Pierce?”
Opposite Anna a lady stood up. Anna could tell from her clothes that she was quite wealthy, and she moved with an air of disdain, as though everyone else in the room were beneath her. Anna wondered what she was doing there: she did not look as if she belonged.
The designer clothes were swallowed up by the door and the room sunk into torpor again. A small baby mewled and its mother tried to hush it but the baby cried even louder and the mother looked around the room, apologizing silently for the disturbance. An older girl took some toys from a chest and banged them noisily on the floor. A couple of women deep in conversation looked over at the toddler and frowned, then resumed their discussion.
Anna wanted to jump up and scream, she was so nervous, but she knew she should not. Maybe, if she were lucky…. She wondered how the lady with the fancy clothes was getting on behind the closed door. People with money always got what they wanted, but maybe money did not count here. Anna watched a young boy of about her own age sitting with his mother who was fussing about his appearance. She fixed his collar, wiped some flecks off his jacket, then produced a comb and tried to comb his hair; the boy pushed her away irritably.
Anna hugged her knees again and stared at the clock on the wall. The jerky movements of the thinnest hand marked out the passage of seconds that stretched into minutes. Anna was able to shut out the murmurings of the waiting room as she focused on the moving pointer. Tick, tick, tick. It seemed an eternity. Nod, nod, nod; in the corner the old lady’s head moved in time to the clock.
The door at the far end of the room opened again, and this time it was the young boy’s turn. His mother followed him to the door, straightening his clothes all the way.
“I’m sorry, but you can’t come in,” said the woman in the white coat. The boy’s mother looked as if she would have a fit on the spot.
“But I’m his mother,” she spluttered, “I have to be there!”
“I’m sorry,” clipboard lady repeated, “but it’s not allowed.” She turned, propelling the boy before her and shut the door, leaving the boy’s mother gaping.
Rejected, the mother shut her mouth and looked around the waiting room, as if looking for somebody to blame. Her eyes settled on the young mother, who had just succeeded in getting her baby to sleep.
“Don’t think you’ll be allowed in, just because your children are babies,” hissed the boy’s mother. The little girl, who had been playing with the pots from the toy chest looked up indignantly.
“I’m not a baby,” she said loudly. The real baby woke up and began to cry. Its mother hushed it and looked daggers at the other woman.
Anna wondered if it would be better to have somebody with you. At least they would be a comforting presence. Still, the boy can’t have had too many problems as the clipboard lady was back again, this time taking one of the talking ladies with her. The hubbub that had started up when the baby cried died down now that the remaining gossiper had nobody left to talk to. The clock ticked, the old woman nodded and Mr Newspaper Man folded and unfolded his paper, hitting it occasionally to keep it straight, all the time making sure that some pages were left on the chairs at each side of him, warding off strangers.
A young lady entered the waiting room and once again the noise died down, while the occupants appraised the new arrival. She looked nervous and avoided looking anybody in the eye. This meant she did not get a seat, as Mr Newspaper Man did not offer to remove his papers and there were no other seats left. Anna wondered whether she should give up her seat, then decided everybody would look at her if she did and she would die of shame, so she wrapped her hands even more tightly around her knees and tried again to become invisible.
Anna must have dozed off, for she jumped when she heard her name being called.
“Annabella,” the lady with the clipboard repeated it, louder.
Anna uncoiled herself and stood up. Mr Newspaper Man was gone, and Timid Lady was sitting in one of the vacated chairs. The only other person still in the room was the nodding crone, still keeping time with the clock.
Anna followed the lady with the clipboard down a long dark passageway until they came to a large well lit room with a long table down the centre. On one side of the table were four people, three men and a lady, all wearing identical white coats while on the other side was a single chair. Anna was directed to this chair and told to sit down. “Why are you here?” asked one of the men in the white coats.
Anna took a deep breath to study her nerves then spoke.
“I want to be an angel,” she said. “I drowned in my Dad’s swimming pool and the person who brought me here said I could have one wish before I move into the eternity room.” She looked down at her feet and spoke very quietly. “I want to become a guardian angel and look after my little brother so that my mother doesn’t lose him too: she thinks it’s her fault that I am here, because she let me go to my Dad’s house, but it’s really my fault. I didn’t listen when Dad told me not to dive in the shallow end, then I hit my head and everything went black.”
The three men scribbled on paper in front of them. The lady just stared at Anna, without any emotion on her face. Anna waited to hear the verdict, but could not take her eyes off the lady’s face. She stared and stared, as if trying to bore a hole through Anna’s eyes. Anna squirmed and tried to hug her legs again but could not move her arms. She felt as if a great weight were bearing down on her, crushing her mind.
“I’m sorry!” shouted Anna, “I didn’t mean to!”
She hugged her knees, rolled into a ball and rocked herself, trying to avoid the penetrating stare. Her head hurt, and she could hardly breathe. The three men finished writing and tapped their pencils on the table. Tap, tap, tap, louder and louder, until it became a pounding that reverberated through her chest. Anna wished desperately that one of them would say something, anything.
She felt herself slide off the chair, and the room swam before her eyes. Now the three men were staring at her and the lady was holding the pencil, only it was not a pencil, it was a light, and she was shining it in Anna’s eyes.
Anna blinked and the men began to speak excitedly. She could not understand what they were saying, but she could recognise one of the voices. It was her father’s.
“It’s a miracle,” he said, “she’s alive!”