Ketchup clouds, p.2
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       Ketchup Clouds, p.2

           Annabel Pitcher
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‘It’s Grandpa,’ Dad said.

  ‘He’s had a stroke,’ Mum said.

  ‘Oh,’ I said.

  It wasn’t the most sympathetic reaction but in my defence I hadn’t seen Grandpa for years. I remember being jealous of the wafer Dad received during Communion when Mum stopped us going up to the altar at Grandpa’s church. And I remember playing with the hymn book, trying to snap it shut on Soph’s fingers, humming the Jaws theme tune as Grandpa frowned. He had this big garden with huge sunflowers and once I built a den in his garage and he gave me a bottle of flat lemonade to serve to my dolls. But then one day there was an argument and we never visited him again and I’m not sure what happened but I do know we left Grandpa’s without even having lunch. My stomach was rumbling so for once we were allowed to eat at McDonald’s and Mum was too distracted to stop me ordering a Big Mac and extra large fries.

  ‘You’re really going to stay here?’ Dad said.

  Mum adjusted the washing-up gloves on her hands. ‘Who else is going to look after the girls?’

  ‘Me!’ I said suddenly, because a plan had popped into my mind. ‘I can do it.’

  Mum frowned. ‘I don’t think so.’

  ‘She’s old enough,’ Dad said.

  ‘But what if something goes wrong?’

  Dad held up his phone. ‘I’ve got this.’

  ‘I don’t know . . .’ Mum bit the inside of her cheek and stared at me. ‘What about your shift at the library?’

  I shrugged. ‘I’ll just ring and explain there’s a family emergency.’

  ‘There you go,’ Dad said. ‘Sorted.’

  A bird flew onto the car bonnet. A song thrush. We watched it for a moment because it had a worm dangling from its beak, and then Dad looked at Mum and Mum looked at Dad and the bird fluttered off as I crossed my fingers behind my back.

  ‘Listen, I really think I’m better off staying with the girls,’ Mum muttered, without much conviction. ‘Soph’s got to practise her piano scales and I wouldn’t mind helping Dot with her—’

  ‘Don’t use them as an excuse, Jane!’ Dad said, banging his fist on his thigh. ‘It’s obvious you don’t want to come. At least have the guts to admit it.’

  ‘Fine! But it goes both ways, Simon. We both know your dad won’t want me there.’

  ‘He’ll be in no fit state to know if you’re there or not!’ Dad replied, looking Mum straight in the eye. It was a clever tactic to repeat her words, and she knew it. With a defeated sigh, she turned towards the house, taking off the gloves.

  ‘Have it your way, but I tell you now, I’m not going anywhere near his room,’ she said before disappearing through the front door.

  Dad gritted his teeth, checking his watch. I walked over to the car, my fingers still crossed behind my back.

  ‘So, do you think you’ll be at the hospital for a while then?’

  Dad scratched the back of his neck and sighed. ‘Probably.’

  I smiled my most helpful smile. ‘Well, don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.’

  ‘Thanks, pet.’

  ‘And I just won’t go to the party if you’re not back in time. It doesn’t matter. I mean, Lauren will be disappointed, but she’ll get over it.’ I said it just like that – so off-the-cuff Dad might think Mum had already agreed. He beeped the horn to tell her to hurry up.

  ‘When does this party start?’

  ‘Eight,’ I replied, my voice a little higher than normal.

  ‘We should be back by then . . . hope so, anyway. I’ll give you a lift if you want.’

  ‘Brilliant,’ I said, trying not to grin as I ran back inside the house.

  In the afternoon Mum rang to let us know that Grandpa was stable. In a hushed hospital voice, she said Dad was coping and could I take the sirloins out of the freezer for dinner and I smiled because steak just so happened to be my favourite. Everything was turning out perfectly so I made myself an orange and lemonade with ice cubes that clinked against the glass. I spent the rest of the day in the garden, writing Bizzle the Bazzlebog in the sunshine and filling up the birdfeeder that hung from the branch of a tree near the back door. Birds zoomed towards it – a magpie that I saluted, a chaffinch landing on the ground and a swallow swooping over the flowerbed – and I watched them for ages, ridiculously happy, because birds are my thing and not to boast but I know pretty much every type in England.

  In the garden there were hundreds of dandelions and I’ve drawn a picture of one in case you have different weeds or no weeds at all where you live. I imagine Texas to be dry, perhaps even a desert with mirages, and I bet you can see all this golden sand through your window and Mr Harris it must be torture unless you’re not a fan of beaches.

  Plucking a fat dandelion, I twirled it between my fingers as I flopped onto the grass and put my feet on a plant pot. The sun in the sky was the exact same colour as the flower in my hand and the two were linked by a hot beam of yellow. A bond blazed between them, and so yeah it was probably just the start of sunburn on my knuckles, but for a moment it felt like me and the universe were connected in a giant join-the-dots puzzle. Everything had meaning and everything made sense, as if someone really was drawing my life by numbers.

  Someone other than my little sister.

  ‘Do you like it?’

  Dot was standing over me in a pink dress with a puzzle book tucked underneath her elbow, signing because she’s deaf. I squinted at the picture. She’d joined the dots in the wrong order so the butterfly that was supposed to be soaring into the sky looked more like it was about to crash-land in the trees. I put the dandelion behind my ear.

  ‘I love it.’

  ‘More than you love chocolate?’

  ‘More than that,’ I signed.

  ‘More than you love . . . ice cream?’

  I pretended to think. ‘Well, it depends what flavour.’

  Dot dropped to her chubby knees. ‘Strawberry?’

  ‘Definitely more than that.’

  ‘Banana?’

  I shook my head. ‘Definitely not.’

  Dot started to giggle and leaned in close. ‘But really more than banana?’

  I kissed her nose. ‘More than any flavour in the whole world.’

  Dot threw the puzzle book onto the grass and sprawled next to me, her long hair blowing in the breeze.

  ‘You’ve got a dandelion behind your ear.’

  ‘I know.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘They’re my favourite flowers,’ I lied.

  ‘More than daffodils?’

  ‘More than any flower in the entire universe,’ I signed, shortcutting the questions as the front door opened and footsteps sounded in the hall. I sat up, listening. Dot looked confused. ‘Mum and Dad,’ I explained.

  Dot jumped to her feet, but something about my parents’ voices made me grab her hand to stop her running into the kitchen. They were arguing, the sound drifting through the open window. Before they had a chance to realise I was there, I ducked behind a bush, pulling Dot after me. She laughed, thinking it was some sort of game as I parted the leaves.

  Mum banged a cup on the kitchen worktop. ‘I can’t believe you agreed to it!’

  ‘What was I supposed to do?’

  She jabbed the switch on the kettle. ‘Talk about it with me! Discuss it!’

  ‘How could I when you weren’t even in the room?’

  ‘That’s no excuse.’

  ‘He’s their grandfather, Jane. He has a right to see them.’

  ‘Don’t give me that! They’ve had nothing to do with him for years.’

  ‘All the more reason for them to spend time with him now, before it’s too late.’

  I watched Mum roll her eyes as I tried to keep hold of Dot, who was twisting and turning, trying to get free. Putting my hand over her mouth, I did a shush face with very stern eyebrows. In the kitchen, Mum grabbed a teaspoon out of the drawer, banging it shut with her hip.

  ‘We made a decision about this years ago. Years. I’m not going back on it now just be
cause your father’s a little bit—’

  ‘He’s had a stroke!’

  Mum flung the teaspoon into the cup. ‘That doesn’t change a thing! Not one thing! Whose side are you on?’

  ‘I don’t want there to be any sides, Jane. Not any more. We’re a family.’

  ‘Try telling that to your—’ Mum started, but just at that moment, Dot bit my finger and broke free and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. She ran off as fast as she could and did two cartwheels on the lawn. Her dress fell round her shoulders, showing off her knickers, and she ended up in a big heap on the grass. As Mum and Dad stared out of the window, Dot picked a dandelion. Only this one was white. Fluffy. Full of those wispy things that look like dead fairies. The sun disappeared behind a cloud as Dot blew hard and the dandelion vanished, and Mr Harris I’m going to stop writing now because I’m tired plus I’ve got pins and needles in my left leg.

  From,

  Zoe

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  September 2nd

  Dear Mr Harris,

  The best thing about this shed is definitely the lack of eyes. No eyes at all apart from eight on the spider, and they’re not looking at me. The spider’s in the web on the windowsill, staring through the glass at the silhouette of the tree and the cloud and the half moon, silver reflected in her eyes as she thinks about flies or whatever.

  It’ll be different tomorrow. The eyes will be back. Sad ones and inquisitive ones, some that stare and others that try not to look but keep on glancing as I walk into school to start the new term. There’ll be nowhere to hide not even the toilets if that’s what you’re thinking because last term some girls waited for me to come out of a cubicle then pounced on me, wanting to know everything – what and when and where and how but not who because they’d all been to his funeral.

  Questions questions questions questions getting louder and louder just like that and I didn’t know what to say. I was beginning to look suspicious so it was essential to find some words, but my voice box was empty. My back started to sweat, a hot white bone burning from my bum to my brain. I turned on the tap as far as it would go. Water gushed over my hands trying to wash away the guilt. I started to scrub, harder and harder as my breath came quicker and quicker and the girls moved closer and closer, and I couldn’t stand it for a second longer so I ran for it. Barging through the door, I collided with my English teacher, who took one look at my face and ushered me into her office.

  On the wall there was a picture of Lady Macbeth above the quote Out Damned Spot and Mr Harris I don’t know if you’re familiar with Shakespeare but in case you’re wondering Lady Macbeth wasn’t banging on about a pimple on her chin. I stared at Lady Macbeth’s bloody hands as my own shook violently. Mrs Macklin cooed, ‘There there don’t worry there’s no rush take as long as you need,’ and I wondered if she actually meant it, if it would be okay for me to sit at her desk next to her pile of marking till the end of time. I couldn’t stand her being nice, patting my arm and telling me to breathe, saying I was doing so well and I was so brave and that she was so sorry, for all the world as if it were her fault, not mine, that his body was in a coffin.

  That’s the hardest thing of all – the knowledge that he’s under the ground. With his eyes wide open. Brown eyes that I know so well, staring up at the world they can no longer reach. His mouth’s open too like he’s screaming the truth but no one can hear. Sometimes I even see his fingernails, bleeding and torn because he’s been scratching words into the coffin lid, this long explanation of what happened on May 1st, buried six feet under so no one will ever read it.

  But maybe these letters are helping, Mr Harris. Maybe as I get more and more of the story to you, more and more of the story will disappear from the coffin until it’s all gone for good. His fingernails will heal and he’ll cross his hands on his chest and close his eyes at long last, and then the maggots will come to eat his flesh but it will be a relief and his skeleton will smile.

  PART TWO

  Anyway, I’d better get back to telling you what happened last year after Mum and Dad had the argument about Grandpa. They were trying to act normal after their row but there was tension I could have cut with my knife, which probably would have been easier than slicing through the steak on my plate. Mum never normally made a mess of the food but everything was overcooked. I hope I don’t sound ungrateful. You must be sick of prison meals, which I imagine to be some sort of gruel as seen in the musical Oliver. I bet the guards eat pizza right in front of your cell and you’re so close you can smell it and your poor mouth is watering and it’s all you can do not to start singing Food Glorious Food in a cockney accent.

  If it’s any consolation, the food Mum cooked that night wasn’t the slightest bit glorious and we gave up on the steak after five minutes.

  ‘Why haven’t I met Grandpa before?’ Dot signed suddenly.

  Dad picked up his wine glass but didn’t take a sip.

  ‘You have, my love,’ Mum signed. ‘You just don’t remember.’

  ‘Did I like him?’

  ‘You . . . Well, you were too young to have an opinion,’ Mum replied.

  ‘Is he going to be okay?’

  ‘We hope so. He’s very poorly though.’

  ‘Will he be okay tomorrow? Or the next day? Or the day after that?’

  ‘Stop asking stupid questions,’ Soph muttered. Dot stared at her blankly because she struggles to lip read. ‘Stop asking stupid questions,’ Soph said again, moving her lips even faster on purpose.

  ‘Sophie . . .’ Mum warned.

  ‘Grandpa’s going to be fine, pet,’ Dad signed. His hands were slow and clumsy. ‘He’s in hospital but he’s stable.’

  Mum put her arm round Dot’s shoulders and nuzzled the top of her head. ‘Don’t worry.’

  ‘I’m worried too,’ Soph announced suddenly. ‘Like what if he dies or something.’

  Dad sighed. ‘Don’t be dramatic.’

  I glanced at the grandfather clock. Forty-five minutes until the party started. I started to whistle. I never normally whistled. Mum watched me suspiciously as I took my plates to the sink, my bare feet cold against the tiles.

  ‘Where’re you going?’ she asked.

  I didn’t dare look at her. ‘To get ready.’

  ‘For what?’

  Dropping my knife and fork into the water, I stared at the bubbles. ‘The party at Max’s house.’

  ‘What party?’ Mum asked. ‘What party, Zoe?’

  I spun round. ‘Dad said I could go!’

  Mum glared at Dad as he dipped his finger into some ketchup on his plate and licked it clean. ‘Well, she’s been good all day.’ It was more than I could have hoped for. I had to fight the urge to run over and kiss him.

  ‘Were you going to mention it to me, Simon?’

  ‘I don’t have to run every decision by you.’

  ‘Oh, so this is how it’s going to be from now on, is it?’ Mum flared up. ‘You making decisions – ridiculous decisions – that affect the whole family, without considering—’

  Dad’s cheeks flushed angrily. ‘Don’t start all that again, Jane. Not in front of the girls.’

  Mum exhaled noisily, but she dropped the subject. I moved to the kitchen door as Dot picked up a green bean and threw it back onto her plate in the manner of a javelin.

  ‘Gold at the Olympics!’ she signed. ‘And gold in the shotput!’ She chucked a carrot. It bounced off Soph’s elbow and landed next to the salt pot.

  ‘Mum, will you tell her?’ Soph moaned.

  ‘Stop it, girls,’ Dad snapped.

  ‘Why are you having a go at me?’ she exploded.

  ‘Leave it, Soph,’ Mum said.

  ‘This is so unfair!’ she cried, flinging a hand into the air and accidentally hitting a glass. It flew across the table, blackcurrant juice spilling everywhere. Dad swore as Mum leapt up to grab a tea towel.

  ‘So can I go then?’ I asked.

  ‘No!’ Mum said.
>
  ‘Yes!’ Dad said at the same time.

  They glowered at each other as blackcurrant dripped onto the floor.

  ‘Fine!’ Mum snapped. ‘But I’m picking you up at eleven.’

  Before Mum could change her mind, I charged out of the kitchen and raced up the stairs two at a time, bursting into my bedroom. It was tidy of course because Mum made me keep it that way, my clothes hanging neatly in my wardrobe and my purple duvet completely straight. My matching purple lamp stood in the exact middle of my bedside table and, on the shelf above my headboard, my books were stacked so all the titles faced the same way. Only my desk was messy, pages of Bizzle the Bazzlebog spread all over it, post-it notes stuck to my notice board with details of characters and plot twists scribbled in biro.

  I got ready quicker than ever in my life, pulling on a pair of black jeans and a top. Really I should have washed my hair but Mr Harris there wasn’t time so I tied it back in a messy ponytail then put on a pair of earrings, nothing fancy or girly, just plain silver hoops. Before I ran out of my bedroom I slipped on a pair of flat shoes then hopped into Dad’s car.

  We heard the house before we saw it, all this music, heavy beats throbbing in the air. Dad pulled up near a row of terraces. They were small and simple, pretty much how Dot would draw a house if I gave her a crayon and a piece of paper. Two windows at the top. Two at the bottom. A front door in the middle and a long, thin garden with one tree, a patio and a scrap of lawn.

  Balloons in the shape of beer bottles bobbed about in the distance, silver strings tied to the gate at the very end of the row. I climbed out of the car, my face probably pink and my mouth definitely dry because I remember struggling to swallow without any spit.

  ‘Be good, eh?’ Dad said, catching sight of the balloons. ‘I could do without any more drama today.’

  He sounded so fed up, I stuck my head back through the door. ‘You okay?’

  A yawn. A flash of fillings. ‘I’ll be fine.’

  ‘Grandpa’s going to get better, you know,’ I said, which was glib but I wanted to get to the party. Dad gazed out of the window without seeing the group of girls stumbling past in dresses and high heels. Four inches, they must have been, and I suddenly wondered if I looked ridiculous in my flat shoes and jeans.

 
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