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The viking and the vende.., p.1
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       The Viking and the Vendetta, p.1

           A. J. Braithwaite
 
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The Viking and the Vendetta
The Viking and the Vendetta

  A. J. Braithwaite

  Copyright 2012 A. J. Braithwaite

  For Niamh

  Chapter One

  "How about if we meet up in London one day?" suggested Pagan. "You know, see the sights, hang out together?"

  "Great idea!" replied Luke. He was lying on his bed, chatting to Pagan Randall on his mobile phone, as he had done on most days of the summer holiday. "I'll ask Mum and Dad if it's OK and call you tonight to let you know."

  Just then, his bedroom door burst open and his dad came into the room, as though he'd been summoned by Luke's words. He was gripping a printed piece of paper and looking highly annoyed about something. He pointed at the phone in Luke's hand and then drew his finger across his throat. Luke got the message.

  "I've got to go, Pagan. Speak to you later," Luke promised. He ended the call. His father came over to the bed and took the phone out of his hand, turning it off.

  "We got you this so that you could call us from time to time when you were away at school. Not so that you could spend a small fortune whispering sweet nothings to your girlfriend." He passed the piece of paper to Luke.

  It was a telephone bill for Luke's mobile. Nearly all the itemised calls were to Pagan's mobile phone and the black figure in bold at the bottom of the page showing the total amount owing was considerable: certainly high enough to explain his father's confiscation of the telephone and the angry expression on his face.

  "Sorry, Dad," Luke said, "I had no idea it would cost this much."

  "Well now you know. You can call her on the house phone from now on – and don't call her mobile, call her home number. And no more than once a week."

  As Luke had been talking to Pagan almost every day for the last month, this seemed harsh. "But Dad-"

  "Are you in a position to pay this bill?"

  "No," admitted Luke.

  "Well, when you are, you can make as many calls as you like." Andrew Brownlow stalked out, slamming the door behind him.

  After a few minutes, Luke followed him downstairs. His dad was in his study, glaring at the screen and punching at the keys on his computer's keyboard as if they, too, had offended him. It had been a while since Luke had managed to annoy his father this much.

  "Er, Dad," began Luke.

  "What?" It wasn't a tone of voice that indicated any eagerness for a friendly conversation.

  "I don't have Pagan's home phone number and she doesn't know ours. Can I email her?"

  "I'm busy right now. Paying your horrendous phone bill. You can email her later."

  Luke deduced that this was not going to be a good moment to ask whether he could go to London and meet up with Pagan. He cast a regretful look at his phone on Dad's desk and retreated to the living room. Here, his twin half-sisters were putting together the plastic tracks of their toy railway. They did not understand how to make the pieces fit together to make a circuit for their train to follow, so Luke got down on the floor with them and slotted the tracks into a figure-of-eight layout. He played with Elsie and Molly for a full hour, hoping to improve his popularity rating with his parents before raising the question of his planned trip to London.

  At lunch-time, Luke made himself useful by cutting up one of the pizzas into toddler-sized pieces for his sisters. His father regarded him with suspicion.

  "Being helpful isn't going to get you your phone back, you know," he observed.

  "Actually I wanted to ask you about something else," Luke said. His parents looked at him expectantly. "Pagan suggested that we could meet up in London one day," Luke explained. "I said I'd ask you if it was OK."

  The mention of Pagan's name sent another scowl of irritation over his father's face. His mother didn't look happy either. "I don't really want you travelling up to London on your own, Luke," she said. "And, after what happened last year, I'm sure that Pagan's mother won't be too thrilled with the idea, either."

  Pagan had run away from home to get away from her mother's new boyfriend.

  "But Pagan camped out for a whole week all by herself and she was fine!" protested Luke.

  "While her mother was beside herself with worry," Mum pointed out. "You'll be seeing her in September, which will come round soon enough, just be patient."

  Luke turned to his father, though with little hope of support from him. "Dad – you'd let me go, wouldn't you?"

  "You heard your mother. The answer's no."

  After a few weeks of getting along fine with his parents, Luke felt as though he had been catapulted back into the summer holiday of the previous year, when he had been rowing with them almost daily. He lost control over his temper and his tongue, as he had done so often back then.

  "I don't know why I bothered asking you anyway. You're not even my real dad!"

  In the silence that followed, the hurtful words seemed to bounce back at him from the kitchen walls. Luke immediately wished he hadn't said them.

  His father began to rise from his chair and Luke took a step backwards, half-expecting to get a cuff round the head, like he had last summer. But, after a moment, Andrew sat down again, seeming to shrink away from the confrontation. He massaged his forehead with both hands for a moment as he mastered his feelings, his face hidden from Luke. Then he looked up.

  "No, I'm not," he agreed, in a conversational tone of voice. "And how do you think your biological father would feel about this?"

  Luke wasn't sure, but he strongly suspected that Ned Kelly, who also happened to be their next-door neighbour and the headmaster of his school, would side with his parents. In any case, he was now so embarrassed and guilty about raising the subject in the first place that he said nothing.

  "Precisely," said his dad, as if Luke had voiced his thought out loud. "So issues of genetics are completely irrelevant. If this is going to be your response to every disagreement we have then I think you need to come up with a new tactic."

  The anger had left Andrew but seemed to have taken up residence in his wife instead. "I can't believe you said that, Luke." His mum glared at him. "Go to your room."

  It was so unusual for Mum to be the one to send him to his room that Luke hesitated for a moment, his gaze resting briefly and longingly on the home-made pizza, which he was all too ready to eat. Then he looked back at his mother, about to ask whether he could take a slice with him. The expression on her face made the safety of his bedroom suddenly quite appealing. He retreated upstairs and lay down on his bed, feeling resentful, remorseful and, overridingly, hungry.

  After an hour of brooding, Luke decided it might be safe to go back downstairs to try to patch things up with his parents. As he passed his bedroom window, he noticed that Ned was out in the back garden of his house next door, cutting back an overgrown shrub. It occurred to Luke that what he really needed was some exercise to work off his bad mood. He went back downstairs and found his mother in the kitchen.

  "Can I go next door and help Ned in the garden?"

  "Don't you want something to eat first?" She handed him a plate with a slice of pizza on it. Luke wolfed it down, then gave his mum a hug of thanks and apology.

  He walked round to his next-door neighbour's side gate and let himself through. Ned turned at the sound of the gate creaking open and raised a hand in greeting.

  "Need any help?" Luke asked. He was in the exactly the right sort of mood to be hacking at a bush. Ned handed over the secateurs he was holding.

  "OK, you carry on cutting this back and I'll collect the clippings." He turned and started picking up the pieces of bush that had already fallen to the ground, throwing them into a vividly pink plastic basket.

  "Nice colour," commented Luke, looking at the basket.

  "It was the only one left in the s
hop," Ned explained. "Makes it hard to lose, mind you. And I can't imagine anyone ever trying to steal it."

  For a while they worked in silence, until Luke stepped back and surveyed what remained of the bush, which was considerably smaller and neater than when he'd started. Ned looked at him.

  "Good job. Do you feel better for that?"

  "Yeah," said Luke. "It's kind of satisfying." He helped collect up the last of the cuttings.

  "Want a drink?" asked Ned.

  "Thanks," replied Luke and he followed his neighbour into the house. Ned made some tea for himself and handed Luke a can of Coke from the fridge. They sat down in the small living room of the cottage.

  "So, what's the matter?" Ned asked. Luke looked surprised at the question. "Come on, Luke. The way you attacked that bush, it's fairly obvious there's something bothering you."

  "I had a bit of a row with my…" Luke paused. Now that he knew that it was Ned who was really his father, he felt a little uncomfortable calling his dad ‘Dad' when he was talking to Ned.

  "With your dad?" prompted Ned.

  "Yes, but that's sort of the point. I ended up telling him that he wasn't my dad. But then I felt bad about saying that. I think it really upset him."

  Ned frowned. "I thought you were getting on much better these days."

  "It was about Pagan," said Luke. "We were planning to meet up and spend the day together in London, but Mum and Dad won't let me go. They're not happy about me travelling up there on my own. They're treating me like a little kid."

  Luke could hear the whine in his own voice and was not surprised when Ned said: "And so you acted like one."

  "Would you have let me go?" asked Luke.

  "It's hardly relevant," replied Ned, repressively, making Luke feel even worse. They drank in silence for a few minutes, and then Ned spoke again. "What you need to do is think of a way of getting around the objections that your parents have. And I mean one that doesn't involve you sneaking off to London without their permission."

  Luke stared at him. "I wouldn't do something like that!"

  In reply Ned merely raised his eyebrows and tilted his head forwards slightly. His disbelieving expression summoned from Luke's memory the day in the previous summer when he had absconded to the seaside to meet up with his old school friends without telling his parents.

  "That was completely different!" he protested. Ned's eyebrows inched higher still, forcing Luke to carry on talking. "Well, things were different then," he said, lamely. Ned remained silent and Luke was forced to think about it more deeply. "I was different then," he finally admitted.

  "Perhaps it's time to prove it then. Think about it, Luke. If your parents don't want you travelling to London on your own, then why not ask if one of them could go with you to meet Pagan?"

  "Oh," said Luke. "Yes, that might work."

  "And make things right with your dad while you're at it. He is your father in every important way."

  "Yeah, I know. I felt bad as soon as I said it." Luke finished his drink, feeling more cheerful. "Thanks, Ned," he said. "I'll go back and talk to them about it."

  His father was working at the computer again when Luke sidled into the study. He cast Luke an unfriendly look over the top of his glasses. "What now?"

  It wasn't a promising start, but Luke took a few steps into the room and leant against a small table at the side of his father's desk. "I wanted to apologise for what I said earlier, about you not being my real dad."

  His father looked surprised. "What's brought about this change of heart?"

  "It was a mean thing to say and I'm sorry. I was sorry as soon as I said it."

  "You've been talking to Ned, haven't you?"

  "How do you know that?" asked Luke, his turn to be surprised.

  "Because he seems to be the only person in the world who can make you see any sense. Did he have any other insights to share?"

  Luke began to worry that he was somehow making things even worse, by making his father feel inadequate compared to Ned. "It's not because he's my real dad," he said, trying to reassure him. "He's just good at explaining things without being too involved. He said that you are my dad in every important way."

  "Alright," said his dad gruffly. "Apology accepted."

  Luke escaped to the living room, relieved to have apologised, but unsure whether he had made things any better by doing so. His mother was sewing labels into his new school trousers. Luke's stomach gave a loud growl. "Is there any pizza left, Mum?"

  "In the fridge," she told him.

  Luke retreated to the kitchen and ate the remains of their lunch, thinking about his promise to phone Pagan and wondering whether to put Ned's suggestion to his parents. He washed the plate and returned to the living room where he started to tidy up the twins' toys in an attempt to get back on friendly terms with his mother.

  "Mum," said Luke, after a few minutes.

  "Hm?"

  "Could you or Dad come with me into London to meet Pagan?"

  His mum put down her sewing. "That's not a bad idea, Luke. But I'm not sure how easy it will be. Dad's pretty busy with work right now and I'm not sure I'd want to make that journey with the twins."

  A picture of the chaos that could be caused by the twins on a train trip to London formed itself in Luke's mind and he had to admit that his mother had a point.

  Andrew came into the room and sat down on the sofa, opening his newspaper and disappearing behind it. His wife explained Luke's proposal and Andrew lowered the paper, shooting a piercing look in Luke's direction. "Is this another one of Ned's bright ideas?"

  Luke felt his temper beginning to rise but made a determined effort to keep his voice level. "Yes, it is. Mum thought it was a good plan."

  "Well I've got better things to do with my weekends than to take day trips into London just so that you can gallivant around with that silly girl. And you can't expect your mother to do the trip with the twins."

  Luke's dad had never had a high opinion of Pagan, mainly because she had managed to poison herself and Luke with toxic mushrooms a few months previously. But Luke couldn't let that comment pass. "She's not a ‘silly girl'! And you're just saying that because it was Ned who suggested it!"

  "Well maybe he'll be willing to take you into town himself then. And since you can't keep your voice down you can go back to your room." He raised his newspaper again.

  Luke made one last attempt. "I promised Pagan I'd call her tonight. Can't I at least send her an email?"

  "You heard what I said," replied his father.

  Luke departed, shutting the living room door behind him. On impulse, he ducked into the study and retrieved his phone from Dad's desk before going back upstairs. Once safely in his room, Luke turned his phone back on and found a text message from Pagan.

  Hi Luke - Mum says trip only OK if I travel down w her on train & meet u at Euston. How about u? xoxox

  Luke was fairly sure that texts were not going to add to the phone bill problem, so he composed a reply to Pagan, giving her his home phone number and asking her to call it. He turned the phone off again, slipped it into his pocket and lay down on his bed, feeling pleased with his cunning.

  Two minutes later, the phone in the hall rang. Luke crossed his fingers and thumbs, willing his mother to answer it. He put his ear to his bedroom door, trying to hear the conversation.

  "Luke!" came his mother's voice. Luke hammered down the stairs, leaping over the last five steps in his haste to get to the phone. "It's Pagan," said his mum, holding her hand over the receiver. "Make it quick," she added. Luke took the phone and his mother went back into the living room.

  "Hi Pagan," said Luke.

  "What's going on?" asked Pagan. Luke briefly explained the problem with the mobile phone bill and his failure to reach an agreement with his parents over their planned trip to London.

  "And Dad says I'm only allowed to call you once a week now," Luke concluded.

  "Oh, that's OK, I'll phone you instead," said Pagan, pragmatically
. "My phone has loads of free minutes on it each month."

  "Great," said Luke. "I'd better go now; I'm supposed to be in my room, in disgrace."

  "You bad boy," teased Pagan. "I'll phone you tomorrow."

  Luke hung up and went back towards the study so that he could return his mobile phone to his father's desk. As he did so, his dad came out of the living room, looking suspicious. "You said that Pagan didn't know our phone number," he said.

  Uh-oh, here we go again, thought Luke. He reached into his pocket and surrendered his phone to his dad for the second time that day. "I texted the number to her," he confessed. "I thought she might worry if I didn't call her tonight and I didn't think texting would cost anything. Sorry."

  He watched his father warily, waiting for the inevitable burst of rage. But, to his astonishment, it did not come. His dad was regarding him with a perplexed expression. Luke was even more amazed when he passed the phone back to him.

  "You're showing more concern for other people's feelings than I gave you credit for," his father said. "Pagan can call you on that and I'll sort out a different package for it so that you can call her, too."

  "Er, thanks," said Luke, startled by this sudden change of heart and delighted to have his phone back again. "I'm really sorry about the phone bill," he added. "If I'd known it was going to cost that much…"

  "It was a bit of a shock, that's all," replied Dad, "and it seems to have sent the day off into a downward spiral. I'm sorry if I over-reacted."

  He turned and went back into the living room, leaving Luke feeling bewildered. To be on the safe side, he decided to return to his bedroom in case he accidentally said something that caused his father to change his mind.

  Chapter Two

 

  His dad had left for work by the time Luke got up the next day. His mother was busy giving the twins their breakfast when he arrived in the kitchen.

  "Luke, I'm running out of milk. Could you pop round to the shop for me and get two pints?" She pressed some coins into Luke's hand and went back to buttering the toast.

  Luke walked to the village shop. As he was paying for the milk, Ned entered and picked up a newspaper. Luke waited by the door for Ned to pay and then walked back with him to their terrace of cottages.

 
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