(Saturday, 14 April)
Peter heard the voice at the front door again. “Mr MacDonald? It’s Lothian and Borders Police. We’re here to check you’re all right.”
He ran through into the sitting room, plucked a Save the Children envelope from Andrew’s pile of unread mail and slit it open, dumped the contents. Hands shaking, he opened the bureau and pulled out the birth certificates and Andrew’s will.
The outsiders had begun to fidget with the locks.
What to do?
Hide in the nest?
But without Andrew’s will, they wouldn’t know to cremate his body.
Time to man up. Nothing else for it. He shoved the paperwork into the charity envelope, left it there, ran through to the vestibule, shifted stinking garbage bags aside to make room, then stood in front of the door.
The Yale knob turned and unlatched.
Peter’s heart slammed against his chest.
“Over to you, officer,” a man’s voice said.
“Let’s get this over with, then,” another man said.
The door opened, and—
“Wah!” the policeman yelled, and staggered back.
And already, Peter knew he’d made a mistake.
Claire Northward looked at the car clock. 9:50 and they still sat on the driveway. “Come on, Steven.”
“Yeah, come on, Steven,” Jack said. “Shift your ass.”
Claire turned to face the boy.
Jack studied his hands then looked up at her. “Alicia said A-S-S.”
“I don’t want you copying Alicia.”
The front door opened. Alicia emerged in an anorak with the hood up, a baseball cap pulled down over that. Not a great look with white tights.
Steven folded and negotiated himself into the front passenger seat. The vehicle tipped and creaked under his weight.
“What’s with the new Spring Collection?” Claire nodded at Alicia as Steven stretched the seatbelt across himself.
He puffed out a breath, loud in the now cramped space. “She’s cut a lump out of her fringe — with paper scissors.”
The girl joined Jack in the back.
“That’s my baseball cap,” their foster son said. He snatched at it. Alicia swore and punched him hard in the gut.
“Hey!” Steven bellowed, startling Claire’s hands off the wheel. “Keep your hands to yourself. That applies to you too, Jack.”
Claire reversed out into the road. Steven gripped the seat, squeezed his hand into the grab handle, and directed his eyes away from the windscreen, up into the roof lining.
She heard Jack crying.
They’d been conned into letting Alicia stay past her initial three days. The placement would be up on Wednesday and Claire and Steven would have met their obligations. One down, one more to go. She glanced at her husband’s hand, tight on the seat. Maybe two more to go.
She tried to lighten the mood.
“First one to spot a green Mazda gets the Flake from Steven’s ice-cream.”
“The Flake from my ice-cream?”
She patted his leg. “You have to stop eating like a rugby player once you stop playing rugby, Steven.”
“I, Jedi?” a female voice said and a poke on Frank Friendship’s shoulder brought him back from Yavin’s fourth moon to the Hanover Street Costa Coffee overlooking the National Gallery of Scotland.
“I, Jedi,” the girl said again, and pointed at his tatty paperback. She pushed a strand of red hair behind her ear. Hair, eyes, eyelashes, freckles, and even the cinnamon twirls Frank’s synaesthesia added to her voice — all the same colour.
“You must be Frank. Hi, I’m Darla.”
He shook her hand but stared at her, confused. “I thought you were thirty-eight?”
“Weeds out the immature,” she said. “May I?”
He waved at the stool beside him. “Sit. You want a tea? A coffee?” She’d suggested they meet here, in case he didn’t get enough coffee stink working in the cafe Monday to Friday.
She jiggled a bottled smoothie at him. “I come prepared.” She swept her skirt against the backs of her thighs and walked her butt back into the seat. “I wouldn’t have needed the Star Wars novel. It’s nice to meet a man who actually looks like his photo.”
“You don’t,” Frank said. “Look like your photo, I mean.” The woman in the picture had seemed to have a bigger nose, bags under her eyes. Darla was pretty, couldn’t be much older than Frank’s daughter, Rosy.
“I always use a hideous picture, so people aren’t disappointed. I have to say, I’m not disappointed.” She dropped her eyes, then looked up at him.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-two.” She cracked open her smoothie. “Ah. Should have shaken that first.”
“I shake my customers’. Their smoothies. Not my customers. Not often, anyway.”
She smiled. “I like your humour. That’s what attracted me when I read your profile.”
Frank didn’t think he’d used humour.
“Are you hearing-impaired?” Darla said, looking at him. “Your speech is a bit… stilted.”
“An accident when I was little.” First date — probably better not to mention brain damage.
“Doesn’t bother me.” She swigged her smoothie, pointed at his book again. “You’re into sci-fi, then?”
“Yeah. I like escapist crap.” He scratched his beard then drew his hand down in case she thought he had nits. “Comics mostly.”
“And you bake?”
“Off and on. I’m not baking right this instant.”
She laughed, did the eyes thing again. “You bake and you’re straight?”
“I’m asexual. There wasn’t a box for that.”
She laughed again then stopped and raised a finger, blinked a long blink. “And that wasn’t a joke, was it?”
He shook his head. “I’m a romantic asexual.”
Her shoulders slumped in a sigh. “Bollocks.”
“What’s wrong? We both ticked friendship, not relationship.”
She narrowed her eyes, drew her bottom lip tight against her teeth, shook her head. “You should make that clear, you know.”
“You said you were thirty-eight. And you posted a picture with a nose like Barry Manilow.”
“Yeah, but I undersold and over-delivered. Big difference.”
Frank scowled at her. “You under-delivered on nose.”
She met his eyes again, then smiled. “You’d have been perfect, you know.” Her voice had shifted, flattened, grown sad. She screwed the lid on her smoothie and stood, shook his hand, getting mango on him. “Nice to have met you, Frank. Good luck.”
He napkined his hand, looked away in disbelief, then back at her. “You like the humour, you like the…” He pointed at himself. “But because I don’t want to…” He slid his middle finger through an okay sign. “… that’s it? Date over?”
“Sorry, but yes. I have no space in my life for sexual screw-ups.”
She left without a wave or backward glance.
He wasn’t even sexual, yet still he was a sexual screw-up.
“Pfff.” Frank wedged his cheek on his fist and looked down at the crowds around the National Gallery, then spied a tall couple with their backs to him, two kids in tow, crossing at the lights: Steven and Claire Northward. He remembered another reason he’d wanted to avoid the town centre.
There were worse places, though. Places he couldn’t avoid. He checked his Timex, and sweat slicked his hands.
Frank picked up his Star Wars paperback again and crossed his fingers for some Jedi tips on the mastery of fear.
The policewoman — PC Cairns — offered her condolences and that was the only time she spoke to Peter. His hope was that, out of respect, they would park any questioning, take Andrew, and leave him to his grief. And maybe put out the bin bags.
The policeman — Sergeant James — sat in Andrew’s chair without asking, the twerp. The man had the look of a molester about him. A chimp would be satisfied with arms that hairy. A brown chimp, anyway.
“Can I take your full name, son?”
Twerp, disturbing Peter like this just as he was preparing to leave. He looked away from the open flap of the bureau, so as not to draw the policeman’s attention to the Save the Children envelope. “Peter MacDonald.”
“No middle name…?” The man raked his fur. “Okay, and your date of birth?”
Peter’s eyes flitted to the bureau again. His and Andrew’s birth certificates. Not counting the blur years, he was nine, so he gave the right day and month, but adjusted the year. That didn’t feel like a lie.
“So, that would make you… nine. You’re quite small for your age.”
Why did he have to talk to the molester chimp? Little boys should talk to the pretty policewoman not the molester chimp.
“You’re not in school?”
“I don’t go to school. I’m educated at home.”
Andrew smiled down from his graduation photo and Peter realised something awful: the only pictures were old ones, taken during the blur years, of an Andrew he didn’t remember. Why hadn’t he thought to take a photo of the pair of them? Happy together, eating a bowl of custard. A bowl of sunshine.
He blinked and sniffed. “I was educated at home.”
The policeman scratched at his neck. “And is this your home? It’s just the neighbours didn’t mention you.”
Peter nodded. “I don’t go out much.”
He had noticed immediately that the officer had a tiny beard below his lip. That made Peter self-conscious about his own bare chin, and again he looked at Andrew’s graduation picture. Andrew with the beard.
“And is — sorry, was — Mr MacDonald your grandfather?” The baby beard bobbed.
“A great uncle, or…”
“A great uncle or… what?” Peter asked.
“Sorry, what relation was he to you?”
“I wouldn’t like to say. Andrew would have known.” Both true statements, just entirely unconnected.
“How did Mr MacDonald come to be looking after you?”
“After my parents died, there was nobody else.” He bit his lip. Family photos. How stupid. He’d have to take all the photos, wouldn’t he? Stupid boy. Why wasn’t he thinking clearly? What would Andrew have made of him?
He could take the pictures from their frames and put them into that old charity envelope, too. If they gave him a moment on his own.
Sergeant James scratched his arms again, to show off how grown-up he was, but who’d want furry arms like a brown chimp?
“And when did your parents die?”
“Some time ago.”
“You don’t know the date? The year even?”
He shook his head, no idea. “Andrew would have known.” That was lost in the blur. “Did you always have furry arms, or did they go like that because you shaved them?”
Behind, PC Cairns laughed and the doorbell rang.
Peter made a reflexive dash for upstairs, the safety of his nest.
Sergeant James grabbed his arm. “Stay.”
That touch felt so wrong, Peter writhed away and slapped at the man’s hand. “Take your dirty ape hands off me!”
It wasn’t the policeman’s raised palms and monkey pout that stopped Peter, but the realisation he’d practically quoted a Charlton Heston line from one of his and Andrew’s favourites, Planet of the Apes.
“Jeez. Take it easy, son, will you? Now sit nice.” He gestured.
The man had been waiting for an excuse to touch him. Molester.
“Son? Will you sit down? Please?”
Peter eyed the handcuffs. Better to comply.
The new arrivals were paramedics. PC Cairns took them into the spare room, but they were far too late.
“Now, where were we going with all this?” The man tapped his chin, looked at Peter sidelong.
“Who’s your next of kin? Do you have any aunts or uncles, or can you give me the name of an adult who could look after you?”
Mrs Goodkind. The first thing he’d done was email her. “I have no living relatives. But I can look after myself. After all, I’ve attended Andrew for the last few weeks.”
“And he’s dead.”
Tears prickled Peter’s eyes. There was a word Andrew reserved for people like Sergeant James. A swear word, but he deserved it: asshole.
The man placed a hand on Peter’s shoulder and squeezed.
Another excuse to touch him. Peter shrugged free.
“Is there anything else you want to tell me?”
Peter shook his head then clutched his chest. He’d almost forgotten the entire reason for speaking to these people. “Cremated. He wanted to be cremated. Not mummified. Definitely not mummified.”
“Right,” the officer said.
“You’re not writing it down.”
“It’s what normally happens, son.”
“That’s all right then. He was very particular, you see.” That was the first item in his will. “Will there be a post mortem?”
The man looked surprised. “He’s an old man. I’m not sure.”
“I just don’t like the thought of him being cut up. Into pieces.”
Sergeant James was looking at him intently.
Molester. Peter had to escape, had to get to Mrs Goodkind and resume his studies. Before Sergeant James or some other molester took him off and interfered with his privates. That’s what molesters did. That and worse. Oh, yes. Andrew had warned him.
“You’re sure there’s nobody else we can talk to?” Sergeant James said.
Peter shook his head.
“Okay. Don’t worry, son. Everything is going to be okay.”
Peter swallowed and stared at his slippers. He should have hidden in the nest. But he’d wanted to make sure Andrew’s body was destroyed.
Otherwise, they might discover what Peter was, and then he’d have more than molesters after his blood.
Jack sat next to them on a bench, finishing his cone and flicking wafer absently at the pigeons. Alicia claimed she was allergic to ice-cream and had asked for cigarettes. A nine-year-old, smoking. She’d settled for Steven’s flake and a packet of Wotsits. She sat on the next bench, the baseball cap still glued in place. At least she’d taken the anorak off.
Steven was about to nod off, surprise, surprise. Claire pulled out a Wet One, wiped Jack’s fingers before he wiped them on his jeans, then added it to their bulging carrier bag of rubbish.
“Come on,” she said to Steven. “Let’s find an emptier bin for all this. Jack: stay there where we can see you.”
“I’m ten, not five,” Jack said, and pouted like a two-year-old.
Steven hauled himself to his feet and shambled along with her.
She stopped at the first bin out of earshot, and turned to keep an eye on Jack and Alicia. “Now what?”
Her husband shook his head, tried to stifle the yawn.
“Steven, now what?”
“Well, I don’t know, do I? This wasn’t my idea.”
They’d hung around in the park in St Andrew Square to watch Edinburgh University students in fluorescent lab coats perform what was billed as a science-based magic show, only to be whined at by short people for blocking the view of the ‘grand finale.’ Then, ahead of schedule by hours, but with nowhere else on the itinerary, Claire had trooped her thirty-five-year-old teenager and the other two children up to Princes Street Gardens for the promised ice-cream.
“I thought there’d be more,” she said. “It was billed as the Edinburgh International Science Festival. I thought there’d be loads to do. Two tricks and they call it a magic show?”
“It’s put on by students. I pointed that out.” Steven yawned some more, worked his mouth and scratched his chest with slack fingers as if she’d roused him after a rough night. “At least that Coke bottle rocket didn’t smack anybody in the kisser,” he said. “Me, for instance.”
Might have wakened him up.
A woman and her partner ambled toward them, on their way from the National Galleries of Scotland. They’d be in their thirties too. The man wore a baby harness strapped to his chest. Claire couldn’t look.
“I need some help. What do we do with them now? So far, she’s punched him in the stomach, torn up his robot postcard, knocked his ice-cream out of his hand and hooked his hood on a railing. He’s had enough abuse at home without suffering it with us.”
Steven stared into space. “Yeah,” he said, not listening.
“Earth to Steven?”
“Well, if we’re all done here, my original suggestion for a day out was to take them up a hill.”
He held up his hands to shush her.
The other couple had drawn almost level. The baby in the harness lolled in her sleep. Her cheek bumped her father’s chest, her hair a dark fluff. So tiny, so precious.
“Great,” Claire said. “Fantastic idea. But I’m not seeing any hills around here.”
He waved his hand in the direction of the castle. “And there’s Arthur’s Seat too. It’s not far.”
“Okay.” She breathed out. “We can do that. Do you want to do that?”
He turned his hands out. “If you want to, I want to.”
“I need some engagement here. You can saunter off to work on Monday. What will I do with them for another whole day?” Easter with Jack would have been no trouble. With Alicia…?
Her husband closed one eye and squinted at her through the other.
She smacked him across the rump. “I said, Mr Van Winkle, what about Monday?”
“I don’t know.” He stood there, hands up again, desperate and clueless. “I don’t know what else to suggest. I gave you another idea this morning—” He snapped his fingers. “Ah. You know what would be awesome? Take them to the Falkirk Wheel.”
“A canal? You’re kidding, right? What is there for kids to do at a canal?”
He put his fingers to his temples as though participation pained him. “I’m out of ideas.”
Useless. Utterly useless.
Claire’s phone had started to ring.
“Sorry. I’m genuinely all out of ideas. You pick something, sweetheart. Whatever it is, it’ll be great.” He bent down, pushed the rubbish into the bin and turned.
Her phone showed Lorna’s number. Lorna on Saturday meant another emergency. “Don’t keep leaving it to me, Steven. Don’t keep opting out—”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” he said, “will you look at her?”
Claire frowned, squinted at Alicia. “What? She’s just sitting. I’ve been watching her.”
“She’s just sitting… smoking.”
Lorna Hardy put her phone back in her Berghaus jacket and smiled at the female police constable — her fellow smoker on the doorstep of the MacDonald house. Not that smiling would help. The policewoman was a cold fish.
“That was the emergency carer,” Lorna said. “I want to place the boy with a family. Don’t want residential.”
PC Cairns appeared unconcerned.
Lorna cast her eyes over the sandstone houses and the cherry trees, red-barked and abloom. “Strange business, isn’t it? Kid’s been here years, neighbours never saw him.”
The constable didn’t respond.
Above talking to civilians, that one. “Very intelligent, isn’t he? Wide vocabulary. He calls the old man Andrew. Not Uncle Andrew or Mr MacDonald. Andrew.”
Cairns flicked ash but didn’t respond.
“Library books all adult. Old movies. All for grown-ups, except Star Wars. Not a single toy. You’d have noticed.”
The lift of the other woman’s eyebrows when she nodded told Lorna she hadn’t noticed at all.
“Up-to-date computer equipment in the lounge. High speed internet access. Would be interesting to find out what they used it for.”
“The boy’s clothes. They’re all the same brand. Everything.”
Cairns looked at her. “The same brand?”
“St Michael. The old Marks and Spencer brand,” Lorna said on the exhale. “Some old, some very old. Charity shop or jumble sale, the lot. And he’s never set foot outside.”
“How do you know that?”
The policewoman was hooked now.
“No outdoor shoes.” Lorna said. “No coat, scarves, hat, gloves, wellingtons, bike, skates.”
“Wouldn’t he get, what’s it called—? Wickets?”
“Rickets.” Thick as mince. “Clever. You’re right, no sunlight, not enough vitamin D.” She pointed at the policewoman. “Good point. You could check the medicines. In fact, I did. None of the usual Smarties—”
“Old people’s pills. Pills to counteract other pills. He’s eighty-odd. Didn’t have any, just over-the-counter items. But bleach and drain cleaner beside the fizzy drinks. Sharp knife on the counter. Lethal can-opener in the sink. Boy treated like an adult. Apart from drawers of sweets and chocolate biscuits. You’re definitely onto something, though — I did see a multivitamin. Excellent detective work.”
The policewoman smiled at the faux compliment. If a fraction of this went into the officer’s report, it would be the most thorough she’d ever filed.
Lorna crushed out the cigarette on the heel of a hiking boot, flipped up the nearest wheelie bin lid, then stopped and pointed in. “Oh, now that’s interesting, isn’t it?”
“What is it?” Cairns said.
Frank pulled his new Mini Cooper over onto the grass verge of the private road that led to Balewood — Phyllis Long’s estate — tipped his head back against the headrest and tried to persuade his heart not to kick a hole through his chest. The soaked pits of his crisply ironed shirt clung.
Balewood House: not even visible, but its proximity enough to stew him in his own memories. This road, the final road. The road his father — Gus Friendship — travelled to his death. Third visit and no easier. Couldn’t Phyllis come to Frank’s flat for a visit, just once?
His phone rang, the sound scattering blue dots, visual artefacts, not really there, created by Frank’s synaesthesia.
“I can see your car on the CCTV,” Phyllis said. “Are you stuck again?”
“Yes.” He gasped the word.
“No rush. I’ll read until you feel up to it. Wind your window down. Relax.”
How pathetic was he? “No. I’m just gonna go for it, Phyllis.”
“Okay, good, but do wait for the gates to open.”
Frank hears the rifle that blows his dad’s brains to Jesus. He’s in the Cortina, waiting. He stays in the car all that night and through into the morning of his seventh birthday, his snorkel jacket zipped up against the cold, ducking down whenever blue or white lights flash through the condensation. His dad has told him to wait so Frank will wait forever.
Lorna stuck her head around the sitting room door. “Knock, knock.”
Judging by the awkward way he perched, the boy had been on his feet. He folded his arms and watched her, a blush blooming on that pale face. Caught doing something naughty. About to go onto the internet would be her guess. And the Save the Children envelope that had been on the secretaire now leaned against the monitor.
The place stank of mildew and rotting waste, but it was all tidy and clean, in a dilapidated way.
The boy blended with his surroundings. Skin pale as cream. Light brown hair — hair that looked like it had been cut with garden shears — hung in straggles over brown eyes. Well-fed, chubby even. His clothes could be exhibits in a war museum: a pair of grey-brown knee-length flannel shorts, a yellowed shirt. But his slippers were new: Transformers.
Lorna took a seat, not too close, not too far. Non-confrontational but approachable. “Hey.”
He smiled, breathing fast. Scared.
“You hungry, dear?”
“I’m starved,” she said.
“Would you like a biscuit? Or a piece of Battenberg cake?” He stood.
Polite. Nice kid. Pudgy. But cute. A real heartbreaker. Placement would be no problem. “Well, I was thinking. You and me. We could go out and grab a bite. Before we go to the hospital.”
She saw his distress at the H-word.
“It’s been a bad day, I know. You want to stay here. It’s familiar.”
“I don’t want to go to hospital. I’m not sick. Can’t you leave me here? My whole life is here. This is my home.”
“Hey, hey. Hospital is just to keep the paper-pushers happy. You’ll be in and out in an hour. It’s Andrew you’ll miss, not the house. Right? Best thing in the world now is company. You think I’m wrong. I’m not wrong. Trust me.”
He closed his eyes. Psyching himself up, by the looks of him. She kept quiet.
“I’m not used to outside. I was ill at first and after I recuperated, a lot had happened. I… well, I didn’t fit anymore.” He stopped. “You’re familiar with house cats, aren’t you? They never go out.”
Lorna nodded, smiled inwardly.
“Well, I’ve been like a house boy for most of my life.”
“I understand, dear,” she said. “House cats are safe and warm all the time. But maybe they get bored?”
He nodded a half-hearted nod.
“Or maybe they go on the internet,” she said.
His eyes locked on her.
She pretended not to notice. “So they’re not bored at all. They can do all sorts of tricks. Play pianos. Drink beer. They look like other cats. But they’re nothing like other cats.”
“Yes, that’s what I mean. I’m nothing like other boys.”
“It’s okay to be different.”
“I am really different, and I need to be on my own, Lorna.”
Using her name. Good. “Nobody needs to be on his own, dear. Everybody needs somebody.”
“Someone to love?” Peter said.
“Yes,” she nodded.
“Only in songs. And that one’s from The Blues Brothers.”
At the door of the house, Peter hung back and let his fingers trail behind him on railings all rusted through. Andrew should have had those painted. What was he thinking?
He had memories of outside, before the blur. He’d been outside, a long, long time ago.
Air blew against his cheeks from somewhere and he searched for the source until he realised it was the wind.
Lorna passed beyond the end of the railing now, carrying the pigskin holdall. Peter straggled, stared at his slippers.
“Come on then, Peter.” She stood on the pavement.
Too far out. Too far from a door that locked.
They’re out there, Peter. Biding their time. Without my protection, you wouldn’t last a week. That’s not superstition. It’s demonstrable fact.
Andrew was gone. Peter needed a personal forcefield. He shut his eyes tight and imagined pressing the button. Imagined a ring of shining energy encircling him.
Lorna put her arm across his shoulder and gave a squeeze. His forcefield smelled of cigarettes but her touch was lovely.
“How about you trust me to be your guide? The car’s over there. Once you’re inside, you’ll be safe. How about that?”
Lorna would protect him. He’d been outside before.
Peter and Andrew have been on the steam train. It’s in the station and new passengers try to clamber aboard, while Dad lifts Peter off, then Andrew. Mum has a toy in her hand but puts it in her pocket before Peter can grab it. She hands them each a slice of apple.
He and Andrew press foreheads and giggle. Andrew bites his piece of apple, but Peter drops his own slice. Mum stops him from picking it up — dirty — and gives him a clean piece.
The train blows its whistle, then chugs out of the station in billows of white steam.
Soon, Mum and Dad will die in the blur. And Andrew will grow old.
Perched in Lorna Hardy’s Land Rover, Peter felt like Han Solo flying the Millennium Falcon. The seatbelt didn’t convince him it would hold him. He touched the dash to press an imagined switch for the forcefield.
Life outside was just like on TV and in the movies.
Their first stop was the KFC ‘drive thru’. Somebody couldn’t spell through.
“They don’t do toys with the meal here,” Lorna said. “Don’t imagine you’re into toys?”
“Toys are a waste of time.” Peter said. That’s what Andrew told him.
He remembered a bear, but not its name. Andrew couldn’t remember either, even though he’d had one just the same and Andrew hadn’t blurred. Peter missed the bear. He’d like to have the bear back.
“I prefer to draw, paint, make things.”
Learn on the internet. He didn’t say that. Lorna didn’t need to know about his studies.
But after they’d eaten, she did test him — with sums and vocabulary.
“Andrew was a good teacher, wasn’t he?” she said.
“Andrew used to be a teacher.”
She patted his knee. “Well, you’re a wonderful advert for home education, dear. But one thing about you doesn’t impress me.”
He frowned. He wanted to impress her. “What’s that?”
“Your hairdressing skills. They’re terrible.”
He felt his face burn. “How did you know I cut it?”
“It’s not too disastrous at the front. The back is the scene of the crime.”
He’d use a mirror next time.
Lorna frowned, set down her KFC cup, unzipped a pocket and pulled out her vibrating phone. She smiled. “I’ve been expecting this. It’s about you.” She opened the car door — “Back in two ticks” — stepped down — “Claire. Hello.” Then the door thudded closed.
Peter had turned his own phone off, and hidden it in a pair of socks in his bag. Andrew’s phone was better. If he’d been thinking more clearly, he’d have taken that. He’d also packed money, Andrew’s keys, pens, pencils and sheets of printer paper to start a fresh diary.
He wished Andrew had bought a laptop, then he’d have taken that too, but with any luck, Mrs Goodkind had already read his mail and would have started to make up a bunk-bed in the Treetop School. All her pupils enjoyed the latest technology.
A man with a blond beard walked past the Land Rover. That beard was so full, he made growing up look easy. The man peered back at Peter.
Peter shivered, looked away. Another molester. Andrew had warned him molesters were everywhere. He willed Lorna back inside.
“Tasty.” Frank pointed at the risotto. “But there’s no protein here.” He poked his spoon at the peas. “That’s your biggest source there — the peas. Not good. What you’ve got here is your basic carb-o-rama.” His chest and thighs had second-day ache from a to-pulp workout Thursday. Muscles shouldn’t have to scrabble around for scraps of pea protein.
The left side of Phyllis’s face, the side with the missing eye, scowled at him. “That spoon was for your pudding.”
“I know. I just didn’t hear the BBC report about the cutlery shortage.”
“You’ll create a bad impression if you shovel food in with a pudding spoon. Knife and fork, please.”
“It’s okay to serve a dinner with no protein, but not okay to eat a spoon-centric foodstuff with a spoon?”
He sighed, switched over. Man, knife and fork were the wrong tools for the job.
Three rice grains, locked in a group hug, tumbled onto the table cover. Frank flicked them up fast but a stain spread out.
Fuck. He messed the linen up last time too. That whole cover would need washing now. He surveyed the table, big enough to seat twelve, but with the pair of them together at one end. What a waste.
Phyllis patted his arm. “Would you like to discuss your phobia for Balewood with a specialist?”
The dining room in the Lodge, where they now sat, Phyllis at the head of the table, and Frank on her right, had a view of Balewood House. At all times, Frank made sure he kept his back to the windows.
“Once we’ve finished dinner, how would you like to wander across there with me? Confront the fear, show it who’s boss?”
He set down his cutlery, drew his hands into his lap and curved his shoulders in. The fear was the boss. “No.”
“The frustration for me, Frank, is that after seeing how much you enjoyed fixing up that old cafe, I know you’d relish a real renovation project.”
He spoke to his plate. “You could open another cafe. I could work on that. I could do the mosaics and stuff.”
“One Friendship Cafe is enough, thank you. Don’t you want a fresh challenge anyway?”
“Told you already, I have a challenge. I’m not sticking around once I’ve built my platform.”
Marek, his late work colleague, had had the right idea about building his platform. Poor guy ought to have stuck to that. And his naked magic.
“I’ll support myself. You need to find yourself another heir. Shouldn’t be tough.”
Phyllis pressed her napkin against her mouth. “Tell me again what this platform is?”
“A web comic. A daily instalment anybody can read for free. Subscribers can access the full archive and bonus content.”
He glanced up at her dishevelled face. The half that wasn’t paralysed smiled.
“I’ll sell art too. Paintings. Maybe custom mosaics. You wouldn’t believe the number of customers who ask about the mosaics. If the Roman Empire had hung on in there, they’d have an outpost in every shopping centre.”
“You could still create that platform, Frank, and do a million other things besides.”
“Sit on my pampered rear end and bleed an old lady dry? That’s what you said to Annie. You were used to me bleeding you dry. Well, I’m not a vampire.”
“That was a silly thing for me to have said, and I said it out of this same frustration. Do you want me to leave everything to Boris?” She pointed at the dog.
His ears perked up and his tail swished. He liked the idea.
“Makes as much sense as leaving it to me.” The son of her baby’s killer. “Even the Lodge is too big. I mean, look at this? What would I do with a twelve-seater dinner table?”
She patted his arm. “Have some kids?”
Though the bedding was clean, Claire felt better changing it for fresh.
She avoided using this room. It had been the nursery and she always fancied she could smell zinc and castor oil cream and baby powder. The walls still glowed sunshine yellow, the colour Steven had surprised her with, acting out the role of the new dad from the movies. Hideous. The room needed to be redone to match the rest of the house.
“Steven?” she shouted down the stairwell. “Duvet.”
Claire shouldn’t have agreed to take in Lorna’s latest lost sheep. She was too soft. Still, it would give her more leverage with Lorna on the real issue: shifting Jack.
“What is it with you and duvets?” Steven said, out of breath. “Your arms are long enough.”
“I don’t have arms like yours.”
“Of course you don’t. You’d be a freak and I wouldn’t have married you.” He picked up the duvet cover, then let it go. “Hey, what’s wrong? Are you crying? That was a joke. ’Course I’d still have married you. Although, finding lingerie to fit would have been a problem.”
She laughed at the image despite the tears. He’d never bought her lingerie. Maybe he had for some of his other women. For Chris. She shuddered.
He put an arm around her. “You’re thinking about the girls.”
She wiped her eyes and rested her head on his chest. “Why do we do this? It’s too exhausting.”
“Parenting is exhausting,” he said.
Everything was exhausting for him. Right now, that wasn’t her agenda. “Not as exhausting as fostering. We’re constantly cleaning up other people’s mess.”
He kissed her hair. “It’s tough, but it’s rewarding.” He sounded like one of the foster parents on the promotional video. “Jack is a different boy now.” More rhetoric from the video.
“What happens when his mother takes him back, Steven, tell me that?”
He sat on the bed and the mattress springs surrendered. “It was never the mother, it was her boyfriends.”
“Which amounts to his mother, doesn’t it? She falls in with bad types. How long before he’s being abused by somebody new?”
“I don’t even want to contemplate it.” He frowned. “Surely you can’t think like that, Claire?”
“It’s what happens — all those bad parents out there. It’s like a massive oil spill nobody can clear up and all we do is clean off seabirds. When they arrive, they’re a mess. We bring them back from the brink, then when they’re stumbling to their feet, it’s time to ship them out. So they can dive straight back into the shit.”
“Wow,” he said. “That simile had metaphor babies inside. Thanks for affirming my worth.” He picked up the duvet cover and started to find the corners.
“I’m tired. I’m not sure how much longer I can do this.”
“You say that, but you don’t mean it. You’d miss it. I’d miss it.” He mated the corners of the cover with the duvet, gave her a sidelong look. He hadn’t got the message. Or maybe he had.
“I’m not saying no more kids…” she said.
A shrug, a stretch, a shake and the duvet was on, like magic. How did he do that?
“We could think about adoption,” he said.
“Or our own.”
“Don’t, Claire. Please.”
“Steven, it’s been almost three years—”
He shouldn’t have the power to say no. She was thirty-nine. Thirty-nine. And he was worried he might hurt the feelings of two ghosts? She’d shamed him into having the vasectomy for her health. Hardly a year later, Beth and Eleanor were gone. The irony burned. They’d frozen some of his sperm, but she needed his permission for that.
He came towards her again but his arms were no comfort now and she waved him away, took a long breath.
“Wonder what this new kid will be like.” he said. “No relatives, you were saying?”
She didn’t respond.
“If he’s a good kid…” He looked at her.
Fostering had been meant as a stepping stone, a way back for him. She’d done the stepping, he’d watched her from the sidelines, still unable to put what happened behind him and start again, unable to take the risk. Other people’s children had given him a place to hide.
Thirty-nine. No more waiting. No time left for sentimentality. She’d given him every opportunity to cooperate. He’d pushed her down the only remaining path.
“The duvet’s on. You’re dismissed,” she said.
His brow dropped into a scowl. “Hey.”
He held the duvet up and pointed. One of the pale brown circles had been snipped out to leave a hole an inch across.
“Oh, no.” She grabbed the quilt. “These are the new covers. Jack wouldn’t do that, would he?”
“I’m guessing not,” Steven said. “But an aspiring hairdresser might.”
When Phyllis’s maid had only just set down a tray of tea and tempting nibbles, Phyllis’s Springer Spaniel, Boris, who’d been guilting Frank with hungry eyes, whined, staggered down onto his haunches, rolled over on his side, made a weird half-bark, then shoved his legs out as straight as if he’d been electrocuted.
“Wasn’t me,” Frank said and held up empty hands.
Phyllis ran to the animal.
Frank lurched up. “Is he okay?”
“He’s having a fit,” Phyllis said. “You’re safe, Boris.” She patted his chest. “Don’t worry. Don’t worry, boy.”
The dog’s eyes had gone wide and his jaw opened.
Frank grabbed his own head, helpless. “Should I call somebody? You want me to drive him to the vet?”
Phyllis shook her head, “No. It’ll pass. He’s had these since he was a puppy.”
She carried on patting the animal’s flank, saying, “You’re safe, Boris, you’re safe. Mummy’s here, you’re safe.”
Frank’s head is underwater and he can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t breathe.
The light goes on, hands wrap the blanket tight around him, haul him up.
“Mummy’s not here. You’re safe, Frank. She’s not here. Mummy’s not here. You’re safe, son, you’re safe.”
Dad holds Frank’s head and Frank chokes down a breath. He can breathe, he can breathe.
“Nobody can hurt you here,” Dad says.
Frank looks around and remembers he’s in Dad’s little one-room house. Safe.
After the fit, the dog galloped and pranced around the room to prove he could. Now he sat there with Phyllis. Phyllis was talking.
“You’re very pale, Frank. Are you okay? I think you got a bigger fright than the dog.”
The spaniel stared at him as though that slobber on the floorboards were Frank’s.
“I’m okay.” Frank thumped back down in his chair. The nibbles no longer tempted him. He’d eaten too many carbs, anyway.
“He takes these turns every couple of months, don’t you, Boris? But that’s two in the last month, so think we’ll take you to the V-E-T. Yes, we will.”
Frank’s brain was screwed-up, Phyllis’s face was screwed-up, and even the dog was screwed-up. This whole place was screwed-up and Frank had to get out of here.
He needed another workout. He shouldn’t, not again. But he had to de-stress somehow.
Frank waved to Phyllis, then reversed fast, hand raised, pretending he was still waving, but he was really just blocking out Balewood House.
His tyres screeched. He imagined ten little Friendships, five boys on the left, five girls on the right, and some new Mrs Friendship facing him, all eating a proteinised risotto with a spoon. The new Mrs Friendship: a mystery lady with kind eyes, who didn’t like sex, but who was handy with the turkey baster and squirted a new kid every nine months.
He hammered the Mini down to the gates, Balewood House louring grey behind him like a tornado.
When Irene had run away and taken Rosy, Frank had missed Rosy more than his wife. A baby to hold and love and love and love. Frank wouldn’t say no to clogging up a whole house with babies.
But babies could get sick and have fits. Babies grew up, went to Norway and left you on your own.
Have some kids?
Yeah. But what Frank needed first was a steadfast companion. A new Mrs Friendship who wanted Frank for what was in his head, not in his trousers. A new Mrs Friendship he could talk to, the way he would talk to Steven Northward if Claire Northward weren’t there to disapprove.
Fox and hounds
The ground had been hard under his slippers and Peter was grateful for the shoes Lorna bought him, even though the brand sounded violent: Kickers. She bought him a coat, too, and wouldn’t accept any money.
She was nice. He wished he could stay with her, but she told him for the next two nights he’d be staying with the Northwards.
At that name, he felt a chill, a premonition of dying alone in the cold. He thought of the Arctic tundra. Huskies crying into the wind. The North Pole. Northward.
“Want my prediction?” Lorna said. “You’ll like each other. If things click, you could be there weeks, maybe even months.”
Months trapped on the icy floes with the Northwards.
On the way into the hospital, they passed a blind man with a black Labrador. Peter stroked its cranium and decided he wanted a dog. A dog would protect him, like a furry forcefield.
The hospital wasn’t the grim place he’d expected but they had to wait for what felt like hours.
Perhaps the wait was his fault for making a fuss about the first doctor. He looked like a molester, though Peter couldn’t tell Lorna that. Instead, he told her he’d heard lady doctors were more diligent, which was true. She’d fixed everything.
He liked Lorna. She told people how it was going to be and that was that.
While he waited, he picked up a National Geographic magazine and read about urban foxes, but had to keep stopping to admire his shoes. Andrew had seen a fox on Princes Street once. If Peter saw one, he could kick it away.
Maybe the Northwards would have a dog. A husky. A husky could beat a fox. Or a molester.
When the doctors were all done, only Peter’s gaping teeth raised any remarks. The doctor said he may need braces, but she was wrong. Andrew’s teeth came in okay, so Peter’s would too. Peter didn’t need a dentist. Andrew made sure Peter brushed so he’d never need a dentist.
They detected no trace of Mrs Dauphin’s treatment or the blur afterwards. The blood test, though, might be a ticking bomb. There was no way to know what Mrs Dauphin had done. The cancer may even still be there, asleep.
Andrew clutches his teddy and stands next to Peter’s bed. Peter’s throat is on fire and the sheets are saturated. Mother tips Peter’s head up and makes him drink something bitter yet sweet: Mrs Dauphin’s remedy. Father picks Andrew up.
“Let your brother rest,” he says.
Mother hands Peter his teddy but he’s too tired even to hug it. Too weak.
Everything is about to blur.
Workout done, Frank checked his phone. Nothing. His email. Nothing. Rosy’s Facebook page and Twitter. Nothing. Rosy had exams, that’s why he’d heard zip from her.
He called Ernesto, the minister, and ended up at the answering machine with no message to leave.
Why nothing from Steven? Three texts in a row, no replies. Had Claire now confiscated his phone?
Frank flopped back on the bed. What had happened to him? He used to spend hours drawing, painting, sculpting, doing jobs for Ernesto, baking. That was when he had Irene. Or, rather, aspired to have her. Even the impulse to jigsaw had left him; the last puzzle he’d finished was a Christmas gift from Rosy, finished in January.
Frank couldn’t settle because…
Because he was lonely.
In the car on the way home from Phyllis’s, stuck in tailbacks on the City Bypass, he’d turned on the radio to listen to the news headlines. Right here in Edinburgh, some old geezer had kidnapped a kid — Boy M — and kept him a secret in his house. Kidnapping a kid. That was despicable. But Frank could empathise with that old bastard.
For a while, Frank had been homeless and had lived in squalor, but he’d had company. For a while, he’d had Catman, his own old man, and the squalor hadn’t mattered so much.
Kidnapping a kid was wrong, but kidnapping an old homeless guy and giving him a home? That couldn’t be a crime, could it?
If he kidnapped Catman, nobody would even notice.
A grin settled on Frank’s face and that grin told him this might be the best idea he’d ever had.
Thanks for reading this sample of Deny Friendship.
Is kidnapping Catman Frank’s best idea ever? What’s the real story behind Peter and the old man, Andrew? And how will everything play out?
Why not find out?