Ketchup clouds, p.8
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       Ketchup Clouds, p.8

           Annabel Pitcher
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  ‘A cake competition?’ she repeated.

  I suddenly panicked that my behaviour sounded suspicious.

  ‘It will be plain,’ I said quickly. ‘No icing. And probably very dry.’

  ‘Good luck with it,’ she replied, sounding uncertain. ‘And come and see me again before Christmas, won’t you? This time of year makes everything so much harder to bear. It’s the thought of him really. Under the ground when everyone else is . . . Anyway, I’d love to see you.’

  ‘Yeah, me too,’ I mumbled even though I have no intention of going to visit, not today or tomorrow or any day for the rest of my life even if it went on forever and ever amen.

  It might sound harsh but I don’t even know her that well. If you added up all the minutes, I reckon we spent two hours together in total before she was holding on to my arm at the funeral, crying silently by the coffin, her fingernails digging into my skin. The first time we came into contact was so brief it hardly counts and Stuart I will tell you all about it right now so imagine me at school funnily enough in the Food Technology classroom struggling to make a loaf of wholemeal bread.


  I lifted my eyes from the weighing scales to see the brown hair at the base of Max’s neck in the classroom next to mine. My stomach flipped over and landed with a thud that shook my brain. All sensible thought sprinkled right out of it like salt, which fyi I’d forgotten to add to my bread mixture. The loaf was a disaster, flat and burnt, and there was nothing for it but to chuck it away. The bin just so happened to be by the door to the graphics classroom and Max must have sensed my presence. When I scraped the bread off the tray with a knife, he glanced up from his design. I waved my hand but unfortunately it was the one holding the knife plus I was too tense to smile. From Max’s point of view I must have appeared stony-faced in the window brandishing a sharp weapon, and then vanished a second later.

  Lauren was finding it hard to believe.

  ‘Max’s house. Max’s house,’ she kept saying and I loved the admiration in her voice. ‘You’re actually going to his house tonight?’

  ‘Thought I might as well,’ I said airily.

  ‘And your mum agreed to it?’ she asked, flour all over her apron.

  ‘Not exactly.’ I told her how I’d lied to my parents about going to the library to do some research on rivers for a Geography project. ‘They’re keeping secrets from me so I don’t feel bad about keeping stuff from them.’

  ‘It’s a slippery slope,’ Lauren sang and Stuart she was so right but I just shrugged with that word called ignorance, saying, ‘One little lie won’t hurt anyone.’

  When the bell rang, I shoved my books in my bag and dashed to the bike shed where we’d arranged to meet, wondering what the hell I was doing. Max’s house. Aaron’s house. Honest truth I almost chickened out, like imagine one of those raw birds from the supermarket in a school uniform with a look of terror on its face. But then Max turned up looking sort of perfect and before I knew it I was following him out of the school gate, hoping all the other girls could see.

  But not hear. The conversation was stilted now Max was sober. Our confidence from the bonfire had vanished like poof into thin air and we were just two teenagers in school uniform traipsing through the drizzle, no fireworks to speak of.

  ‘What did you do yesterday?’ I said, as we stopped by a zebra crossing and waited for the little green man.

  ‘Played football.’

  ‘What was the score?’

  ‘Three – two to us.’

  ‘Three – two to you,’ I repeated as the green man appeared.

  ‘Why are you waving?’ Max asked and sure enough my hand was moving from side to side in the air. It was a habit, a thing I did to make Dot smile, saying hello to the green man like he was an actual person with an actual job and not just a light on a machine.

  ‘Just swatting a mosquito.’

  ‘It’s winter.’

  ‘A robin then,’ I joked, but Max didn’t get it.

  When we reached his house and walked up the garden path, I made sure my feet didn’t touch the alligators. Max unlocked the door and there was absolutely no need for me to put my fingers on the handle, but I did it anyway because in Biology we’d just learned about DNA and how it brushes off your body without you even realising it. I squeezed the cold metal wondering how many times Aaron had done the same.

  ‘You coming in, then?’ Max said, taking off his jacket and hanging it on a peg by the front door. I stepped into the hall as the multi-coloured swirls of Aaron tingled on my skin.

  ‘So, er, do you want a drink or something? Orange?’ he asked. I nodded, straining my ears to see if I could hear anyone else in the house, but it was silent apart from radiators groaning in the kitchen. We were alone. And the road outside the house was empty.

  ‘Where’s your mum?’ I asked, though it wasn’t her car I was thinking about.

  ‘Work,’ Max said, pouring two juices in the kitchen. It was small with a table in one corner and two plants dying on the windowsill.

  ‘And your dad?’

  ‘Doesn’t live with us.’

  ‘Oh yeah. You said. Sorry,’ I added because Max’s face had clouded over.

  ‘Whatever. Doesn’t bother me.’ He handed me a glass. ‘He left a couple of years ago so I’m pretty used to it.’ I downed my orange in one go. Max did the same. Our glasses clinked as we dropped them in the sink and a dog barked outside. ‘Mozart. Stupid name for a dog.’

  ‘They should’ve called it Bach,’ I said, grinning. Max didn’t reply so I just asked where the toilet was despite the fact I didn’t need to go and I already knew the answer from the party.

  ‘I’ll show you,’ he said, leading me to the upstairs bathroom. He made an awkward noise, staring at something by the silver flush. I followed his gaze to see a tube of cardboard hanging on the wall where a toilet roll should have been. ‘Er . . . I’ll get you some more.’

  ‘No need,’ I replied. Max raised his eyebrows. I had no intention of doing anything on the loo but he didn’t know that.

  ‘You sure?’

  ‘Yes. I mean no. I need a roll,’ I said. Max’s eyebrows lifted even further. ‘Not a whole roll,’ I added. ‘Just one piece.’

  In case Max was listening, I made the pretence of going to the loo. I was all sneaky about it, flushing the toilet and turning on the tap. A bar of soap had shrunk to the size of a 50p and I imagined Aaron washing his hands so I bent down to smell it. My lungs filled with the scent of him. I picked up the soap and dropped it into my coat pocket and probably I’m sounding crazy right now Stuart but people do all sorts of weird things e.g. on this TV programme that put hidden cameras in public places, a middle-aged woman in the bathroom of a posh restaurant fox-trotted towards the hand drier, swooning underneath the heat saying ‘Oh Jonny’ like she was in that film Dirty Dancing. And once when Mum took me to London to see a musical just before Dot was born, she wanted to go to this place where the Beatles crossed the road, which sounds like a joke but actually happened in real life, on the front of an album cover to be precise.

  There were loads of tourists clicking their cameras and risking death by posing on the crossing, trying to dodge the red buses. The tourists were giddy but Mum was the giddiest one of all if you can believe that, posing for a photo with her arm wrapped round a man from Wokingham dressed like John Lennon. I reckon that woman in the smart suit would have picked up Patrick Swayze’s soap and that man from Wokingham would have picked up John Lennon’s soap so Stuart I don’t think I was all that weird for picking up Aaron’s soap. I bet you did some peculiar things when you fell in love with Alice after your first date at the diner. Perhaps you took a ketchup sachet off the table and even when you ran out of tomato sauce at home you could never bring yourself to open it, and maybe it’s still in your cupboard now between the mustard and the Worcester sauce. Anyway time’s ticking so I’d better get my skates on, like imagine my fingers wrapped up warm for winter and this letter all frozen
as my hand slides across it. Suffice to say things were getting heavy in Max’s room. His fingers were creeping towards the zip of my school skirt when I heard a car park outside and BAM all of a sudden I came to my senses.

  ‘Where are you going?’ Max moaned because I’d jumped up off the bed, straightening my clothes.

  I pretended to look at my phone then put it on his desk. ‘Places to be.’ Pulling on my shoes, I ran my fingers through my hair as the front door opened and closed.

  ‘You don’t have to rush off,’ Max said. ‘My family’s cool with me having girls round.’

  ‘I really should go,’ I replied, imagining Aaron’s face when he saw me with his brother. A bag was dropped at the foot of the stairs and a TV was turned on. ‘Like, right now . . .’

  ‘Stay a bit.’ He patted the bed by his side then faked a shiver. ‘I’m getting cold without you . . .’

  ‘Do up your shirt then,’ I said, which he did in a sulk, taking an age over it as I hovered in the middle of the room, desperate to leave but trying to hide it.

  ‘You’re no fun,’ he sulked, standing up at last before we made our way downstairs.

  ‘That you, Max?’ someone called over the sound of the TV. Someone female. I breathed a sigh of relief.

  ‘No, Mum. It’s a burglar nicking all your stuff,’ he dead-panned.

  ‘Oh, ha ha. Very funny. School okay?’

  ‘Same as always,’ Max called back. ‘Maths. Boring. English. Boring. Science. Boring.’

  ‘Easy with the enthusiasm there, son. Aaron back yet?’

  I flinched then rubbed my nose to disguise it.

  ‘Nah. He’s probably at Anna’s.’ So that was her name. ‘See you later,’ he said to me because I’d opened the front door.

  ‘Aren’t you going to introduce me to whoever is lurking in my hall?’ his mum called.

  ‘Maybe another time,’ Max replied and that was that, my first contact with Sandra over and done with.

  Now if you were a nosy neighbour in Max’s street you would have been sorely disappointed because absolutely nothing happened as we said goodbye in the garden. I waved and Max waved and he closed the door quickly and honest truth the whole thing had been a bit of a damp squib and Stuart if you don’t know what that is then picture a soggy explosive that fails to go off and you’re pretty much on the right lines.

  By the time I left the house, the moon was shining in the indigo sky. I would love to say it was one of those full ones to make it seem significant but it wasn’t particularly twinkling or romantic so I had no clue that something amazing was about to happen. That something amazing turned out to be an old blue car waiting at a traffic light by the church. A pigeon flew out of nowhere so I ducked as it almost hit my head and when I straightened up, someone beeped a horn. My eyes adjusted to the dazzle of the headlights and I realised with a great rush of adrenalin that it was Aaron.

  ‘Bird Girl!’ he called from the car. ‘Hanging out with pigeons!’

  ‘Getting attacked by them,’ I corrected him.

  ‘Well, I’d better give you a lift then!’

  I don’t think I even gave a reply, just ran into the road as the traffic light turned green and a man in a van yelled angrily through his open window. Holding up my hand to apologise, I dived into DOR1S headfirst. Aaron sped off before I’d closed the door. Caught up in my seat belt, my face somewhere near the handbrake as we screeched forward, my nose banged against Aaron’s thigh. We started to laugh.

  ‘Pull in somewhere,’ I said, my sides aching, my foot stuck under my thigh. ‘I’ve got pins and needles!’

  Aaron stopped by the Chinese takeaway. ‘Hi,’ he said, when I was sitting normally.

  ‘Hi,’ I replied and a dry squib exploded in the darkness between us. He was wearing faded jeans and a baggy blue jumper and his blond hair wasn’t doing anything special but looked pretty much perfect sitting there on top of his head.

  ‘So, where’re we going?’ Aaron asked.

  Some place far away. That’s what I wanted to say and Timbuktu was the first thing that popped into my head but of course I just asked for a lift to Fiction Road because I knew Mum would be waiting. Aaron checked over his shoulder and pulled off as a woman in the Chinese takeaway flipped a sign on the door. Open. The lights came on and a dragon in the window shone green making me think of adventures in faraway lands, and I wished harder than I’d wished for most things in my life that the car was magic and could take us all the way to Timbuktu because at the time I thought it was a mythical place sort of like Narnia rather than an actual town in Africa, blighted by poverty and famine.

  ‘Fiction Road it is,’ Aaron said, except of course he used my real address and I loved how he knew where my house was and didn’t have to ask for directions.

  Once Dad read this book about the adaptability of humans and how we are remarkable creatures because we can get used to anything, and Stuart that is so true if you consider how people fall asleep on planes, not even thinking about how miraculous it is to be high up in the sky flying above the clouds to South America or somewhere, going to the loo thousands of metres above the earth, peeing all over the ocean. And that’s what it was like driving along with Aaron. At first it was Woooahhhh but after a few minutes I got used to it and I had the strangest sense that on that seat was where I belonged. We drove effortlessly down the long road and the traffic lights turned green at the right moment as if the dragon from the restaurant was breathing emerald fire to illuminate our way home.

  Aaron glanced at my uniform.

  ‘Bath High?’ he said. ‘I used to go there. My brother still does.’

  ‘Really?’ I said, my face interested but my insides turning cold. Liver. Spleen. Heart. Everything froze.

  ‘Max Morgan. You know him?’ Aaron turned right. Sped down a clear road. Slowed down and turned left.

  ‘Max . . .’ I started, but an ambulance roared up behind us, sirens blaring. Aaron swerved out of the way, his foot slamming the brake as something hard hit the glass by my head. A tiny red figure swung from the rear-view mirror, tapping against the window. I rested it on the palm of my hand as the ambulance hurtled down the road and disappeared round a bend.

  ‘That was close!’ Aaron breathed.

  ‘Is this—’

  ‘Miss Scarlett from Cluedo,’ Aaron nodded. ‘And Cluedo dice. Everyone at college had those lame fluffy things so I thought I’d hang actual dice from my mirror instead. Besides. Cluedo rocks.’

  ‘You like Cluedo?’

  ‘Do you like Cluedo?’

  ‘I love it,’ we replied at the exact same moment, and then we grinned.

  ‘So much better than Monopoly. All that going round in a circle . . .’ Aaron said.

  ‘Passing Go. . .’

  ‘Stealing money from the bank to buy houses . . .’ Aaron finished. ‘Everyone steals a little bit,’ he protested as I looked horrified.

  ‘I don’t!’

  ‘’Course you do.’

  ‘Honestly I don’t!’

  ‘You’ve never stolen Monopoly money?’ Aaron asked. ‘You haven’t lived. I’ll show you how to do it sometime.’

  ‘Sure,’ I shrugged, but inside my heart was thawing, dripping all over my bones.

  The sign for Fiction Road came into view, black letters on a white post that had a fat brown cat sitting on top of it, and Stuart in actual fact I can hear one outside the shed right now, meowing in the darkness. The one on the street sign was pretty much silent and we were getting closer and the cat’s eyes were getting brighter but I didn’t want to go home, not yet, not ever.

  ‘Stop here a second,’ I said.

  Aaron pretended to tip a chauffeur’s hat as he pulled up next to the cat. ‘Let’s say hello!’

  ‘What . . . No . . . Wait!’ I called, but Aaron had already disappeared leaving the car door wide open.

  ‘Hello, Mr Cat,’ he said, stroking the speck of white between the cat’s pointy ears.

  ‘Lloyd,’ I corrected him. ‘
He lives next door. Along with Webber.’

  ‘Lloyd Webber,’ Aaron muttered as the cat jumped off the sign and rubbed his head against my leg with a pebbly sort of purr. ‘We’ve got a dog next door to us called Mozart.’

  I nodded as if this was brand new information. ‘They should’ve called it Bach,’ I joked, but my heart wasn’t really in it. Aaron laughed and the sound made me happy and sad, like Stuart imagine those faces from the theatre hanging from my ribs in the middle of my stomach.

  ‘Beautiful animals,’ Aaron muttered, as the cat shot off into the bushes. ‘Don’t you think?’

  I climbed onto the wall, shivering slightly. ‘I don’t know. I prefer dogs.’

  Aaron jumped up next to me. ‘Cats are definitely better. More free. Like Lloyd, just running off to explore.’

  ‘But they’re always on their own. Dogs are more sociable. Wagging their tails. Running about.’

  ‘Cats can climb trees,’ Aaron argued.

  ‘But dogs can swim. And cats kill birds, which I just couldn’t do.’

  ‘You and your birds . . .’ Aaron said, lifting one foot onto the wall and resting his arms on his bent knee.

  ‘I love them. Better than cats and dogs and all the other animals put together.’

  ‘What’s so special about them?’ Aaron asked, turning to look at me as if he was extremely interested in the answer.

  I thought for a while. ‘Well, they can fly.’

  Aaron gasped. ‘Really?’

  I hit him on the arm. ‘Don’t be an idiot! I won’t tell you if—’

  ‘No, go on,’ he said, his eyes twinkling.

  ‘Well, they can fly . . .’ I glanced at him suspiciously but he remained silent, ‘. . . which is unbelievable, I mean, imagine being able to take off and go wherever you wanted. Like swallows. It’s crazy how far they go.’

  ‘They’re the ones that migrate?’ Aaron asked.

  I sat on my hands and nodded. ‘They fly away for winter, these tiny little things zooming above the ocean, totally fearless. Twenty thousand miles they travel or something, and then they fly all the way back again when the world’s a bit warmer. I don’t know. It’s sort of cool,’ I finished feebly.

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